Victory to Blanketmen

It might have been a long flight for Richard O’Rawe, most of it a climb. It is said that aircraft are most strained during the ascent but once in the sky the cruise is relatively easy. The author of Blanketmen now finds himself cruising at a moral altitude well above that of his critics.

For long we had been regaled with delusional tales of how O’Rawe had been comprehensively demolished and that each new non-discovery by his opponents had finally concluded the debate in their favour. Truly underwhelming stuff where wish was parent to the thought.

Even before this week’s Irish News special on the 1981 hunger strike O’Rawe’s integrity had been both salvaged and enhanced. With Brendan McFarlane feeling compelled to reconfigure his account of the pivotal 1981 prison conversation between himself and O’Rawe in the wake of serious erosion of his original account, the die was cast. After that few believed that O’Rawe had made it all up. They may not have attributed any malign motive to McFarlane but simply acknowledged that O’Rawe’s narrative possessed a consistency that unlike the counter narrative was not chameleon in character. The pendulum of culpability swung decisively away from O’Rawe.

His vindication secured, that the Irish News debate took place at all was further validation of the position of Richard O’Rawe. That the claims made in his book Blanketmen almost five years ago are being given such exposure this week in a newspaper read by more Northern nationalists than any other were beyond his wildest expectations at the time of publication. It was also something Sinn Fein would have viewed as a nightmare had they any inkling. Now all O’Rawe has to do is turn up. His critics, by contrast, have no option but to turn up; a sign of how the balance of power of persuasion has undergone a significant shift. And where they needed to raise the level of their contribution they singularly failed. The issue has now been pushed to a new plateau. Had the original allegation in Blanketmen been about the existence of either the unicorn or the mermaid that would have been the last anyone heard of it. What kept it going to the point where O’Rawe’s narrative is now the dominant one, having successfully challenged and displaced the previous one, was the ring of truth that resonated from it.

There are echoes of the Birmingham Six emanating from this controversy. When convicted it looked as if their goose was cooked. Few gave them a snowball’s chance in hell. When challenged the British judiciary jerked and jumped as if they had had been tapped with a cattle prod. Howls of indignation met the challenges of those seeking to establish accuracy. ‘How dare anyone question us’ was the standard arrogant refrain. All critics were told to shut up and just accept the view of Lord Denning that all they had to offer was an appalling vista. They were smeared as terrorist sympathizers. It got the judiciary nowhere as they were swamped under an avalanche of probing and investigative journalism.

Seems something similar is taking place here. The regime of truth which had little true about it is being dismantled month by month. The old chant from within the bowels of the H-Blocks, ‘Victory to the Blanketmen’, has meaning like never before.


  1. Anthony, living abroad for a while and now in the Southern part of this island I've not really followed the debate on this too closely. I don't buy Northern papers. What I gather is there was a possibility of a deal before the 5th hungerstrker died but SF leadership were more interested in ratcheting up the support that the crisis was bulding. Is this close to the mark? They unnecessarily allowed the deaths to continue?
    If so, why the surprise. There's little more to be said about those people and what they are capable of. It may be symptomatic of poltics in general, like "new labour" ect selling themselves for a taste of so-called power at Stormont. The greens in the South here are the same. I see Mc Guinness is at Brighton asserting he has nothing to be ashamed of..only perhaps that he wasn't privy to the op and couldn't inform his handler in time I suggest lol
    Good for Mr O'Rawe..but I fear the nature of so called Republican politics today has little place or regard for truth and honour. But I hope he personally feels better and those on the inside at the time who are disgusted at the use and abuse are to some degree satisfied.

  2. Larry, admittedly I don’t follow it any where near as closely as I would have done some years ago. It amounts to a claim being made that a deal could have been reached before the fifth hunger striker died. Why it was not secured is a matter for discussion. It has not been demonstrated that the SF leadership sabotaged a deal rather than merely played a poor hand. The longer the debate goes on, however, the worse SF seems to look.

    I think it is a dangerous allegation to throw around - that McGuinness was an agent. I for one have seen nothing that would lend itself to such a serious charge. I know people who cannot stand him and think he has sold out but still defend him against allegations that he was an agent.

    O'Rawe has displayed great courage but as you say truth and Provisionalism are like strangers to each other. I think this is one of the factors that has favoured the O’Rawe narrative.

  3. agh I think his skin is thick enough at this stage lol old steaknife might have been sacrificed to protect him lol rolling about the floor with laughter! bit of a pantomime at this stage.

  4. Larry, no doubt it is thick but accuracy is vital in these things. I think his behaviour has been disgraceful but I would never label him a tout. Although for him and others to be currently advocating a strategy of touting I sometimes wonder why I bother making the distinction.

  5. We all owe a debt to Richard O'Rawe and those who have supported and encouraged him. This is a very complex tale, but one thing that is not complex is the truth.

    There is absolutely no valid reason that I can see why the truth should not have come out without O'Rawe being put though what the ringer. Beyond that is the way some people within SF have traditionally come to do business. They clearly believe if it is not broke, don't fix it. Well, the Kerfuffle over Richards book proves beyond doubt it is broke and dastardly so. So fix it!

    Future generations of Historians will have much to thank Richard O'Rawe for, as we all do.

  6. A case of maners and decency I think on your part Anthony. That's why you make the destinction. I'm not generally rude..cynical posibly..but I've seen too many cute hoors and sociopathic creeps in a small place to care about P'S and Q's...if they advocate it..or if the hat fits...stay well clear!

  7. AM

    Not having been directly involved in the struggle - can you give me your opinion of what should have happened in the 90s instead of going down the path to the current arrangement. If you have outlined this elsewhere just point me to the link but I just want to get some context.


  8. Anthony

    'It has not been demonstrated that the SF leadership sabotaged a deal rather than merely played a poor hand. The longer the debate goes on, however, the worse SF seems to look.'

    I think there is a danger in trying to associate the past with the present in this, all too important and sensitive issue for us all.

    I think the only truth that will ever be clear is that those were dark and draining days for everyone in the Republican Movement, Community and even those associated by emotion. In the same way as you are right not to label Martin McGuinness as an agent, I think it would be best all round not to get into the area of blaming anyone other than Thatcher and her chronies for the death of all 10 H-Block Martyrs.



  9. TP
    "I think there is a danger in trying to associate the past with the present”. Sorry but not sure I understand the statement it seems to me that the leaders involved in 1981 are the same leaders today and from there own admission except Gerry Adams were all members of the Provo’s so they had to be close to the heart of all that was happening. Martin Mc Guinness was there in 1981 and is now dishing out British rule in 2009 as part of the same grouping Sinn Fein/IRA. I am not saying Martin is a tout and never would but maybe would question his vulnerability to be manipulated by both the British and some people wanting power from within the republican movement, so as I hope you can see from the outside looking in it’s the “same old same old”. Maybe some of his comrades should give him some help by standing more firmly beside him but we can only dream.

  10. John, I suppose not being directly involved in the struggle allows you to escape the shibboleths so many of us involved were shackled to.

    Yes there was stuff done on this. It is the type of question I would frequently get asked at conferences or by students/academics doing research. So most of the discourse around it would be recorded by those types. From memory there were also interviews with Pat Kenny on his radio show, Noel Thompson on Hearts and Minds amongst others, articles in Fortnight and Parliamentary Brief from around 94 on. There is probably a report somewhere of the North London 'What Next?' conference where alternative ideas were articulated.

    What should have happened in the 90s? I think what we thought then, viewed with the benefit of hindsight, would not have avoided defeat. The main arguments were for alternatives that would have avoided capitulation. They dealt with a range of issues that would have placed republicanism into a position of subverting rather than administering British rule; radical oppositional politics in the North tied in with radical politics in the South which would never have entertained coalition with the right or forming part of a British administration; the minimum demand for joint authority rather than the resurrection of Stormont; the setting up of any Northern parliament in Derry not Belfast; the right of nationalist counties to withdraw from the union as a form of rolling anti-partitionism; the removal of the veto from Ireland to England as a means of subverting the consent principle.

    There were a lot of ideas floating about. The one I favoured was the oppositional politics. What interested me more than any of them, hwever, was challenging the censorship that prevented a proper discussion of alternative ideas.

    I think it was always a genuine position for people in SF to take when they asked ‘what is the alternative?’ I think the problem came when they would say ‘there is no alternative.’

    Nowadays it all looks a bit academic. I have come to the conclusion that republicanism could only but fail. I just ask myself did the failure have to be so catastrophic.

  11. Westie, good to hear from you again. I don't think that the approach you suggest it valid. Should we ignore science and just stick to the bible? What do we do when evidence comes up that suggests another way of looking at things? If you choose to believe the SF narrative, fine. People can believe what they want. But nothing should be placed in the way of somebody developing an alternative belief.
    I am one of those people who believe this discussion could have been defused years ago. What has kept it going is the manner in which O'Rawe was villified. He in turn felt compelled to respond. In holding his ground the evidence in his favour has mounted. Now we can't ignore it even if we want to.

  12. Thank you, AM

    I will look up some of these and you are right being removed from the day-to-day obviously affects perception.

    I suppose the most troubling aspect of what you write and what I have read elsewhere or viewed online is the sense of dignity, humility and humanity that was displayed by many of you and your comrades - with the 10 hunger-strikers and their families exemplifying this in every way back then and their families continuing to in the intervening years and then wondering if this very dignity and humility allowed others to manipulate the situation. That the defeat would be as you put it so catastrophic obviously creates the almost intolerable burden of "what was it for?". But then again would anyone have foreseen where this road would lead.

    Your suggestions of alternative strategies are good ones but as you say did not get air-time as they did not fit the template being created.

    Thank you again and I enjoy your blogs and the comments that they prompt.

  13. Interested

    There may be some common figures in place between the then and now, but it wasn't so much the individuals I was talking about as to the circumstances, the tensions, the stakes and the determination of our people inside and outside the jail at that time as opposed to the recent and current political decision making. There were other key figures involved as well at that stage, again both within and outwith the jail, who would have had some input into the decision making about the strike.

    Anthony, my para above also refers I suppose. I personally don't believe that the brits came in with a legitimate offer at the time being suggested - and unless someone was able to play an old dictaphone recording of a conversation that took place or unveiled a document with the offer in black and white, that will remain the case.

    Found it interesting that Garret (the most Hateful Brit) Fitzgerald threw his tuppence worth into the discussion earlier this week. Can't say his intervention did anything to change my own opinion.
    His biggest hero of that era was none other than Thatcher herself.



  14. Westie, I think now the evidence points clearly to the Brits coming in with an offer, that the prisoners said yes, the leadership said not enough. The why rather than the what is what tasks minds now. Of course a Dictaphone might settle matters - but for someone to say it was doctored by securocrats.
    It adds nothing to the debate to smear Fitzgerald. Your opponents will only point to McGuinness in the Irish News - having stood with the leader of the British police in Ireland and the leader of British unionism in Ireland while he called republicans traitors. None of that throws light on what happened. And a neutral observer would, I suggest, find Fitzgerald's track record on honesty a lot stronger than the leader of SF. What Fitzgerald does do - while swinging neither you or me - is to add weight to the shoulder at the wheel pushing the earlier narrative off center stage.
    So all that smearing and whatever is best avoided in pursuit of the evidence. If any evidence is uncovered that would exonerate the SF leadership of any culpability it should be put out there. There would be no reason whatsoever for any one to suppress it other than badness. I know if I found the Dictaphone in the morning you refer to I would put it out there even if it blew O'Rawe's case out of the water. Do you think it would work the other way round?

  15. John, manipulation of the situation has focussed the minds of many in recent times. It extends beyond the hunger strike. Time out of number I have heard that question asked 'what was it for?'