Irish Times’ Hunger Strike Series Gets Off To A Poor Start


Add caption
The Irish Times has today announced on its internet edition that it intends to mark the 35th anniversary of the 1981 IRA/INLA hunger strikes in 2016 by publishing a series of articles throughout the year, some written by academics and some culled from the paper’s archive from 1980 and 1981, aimed at ‘re-thinking’ the historic protests.

These will appear only on the web edition of the Times and will culminate in what the paper calls ‘a symposium’ on the subject.

This is how it described the mission:

Over the course of the next year, The Irish Times online will be publishing a series of articles by established and upcoming academics, exploring the strikes and their legacies from a huge range of perspectives, as well as republishing articles from its own archive and looking back from today’s standpoint with the intention of shedding new light on a seminal event in recent Irish history and familiarising a younger generation with this complex and contested episode.

I am sure regular readers of this blog will be very interested in what appears and will therefore ensure full coverage and analysis of the series. The Times lists some twenty-four topic headings that their academic experts will write about, ranging from the ‘Hunger strikes and the Catholic church’ to ‘Hunger strike murals’ and, intriguingly, ‘Gerry Adams in Long Kesh/Maze’. You can read the full list here.

Doubtless much will depend on the calibre of the academics and their political slant (and don’t tell me academics don’t have political views which influence their work!). Much of the key parts of the history of the hunger strikes are still a matter of huge disagreement which ought to be fully explored in the Times. Let’s hope that happens.
It doesn’t help, therefore, to see the Irish paper of record immediately offer an explanation for the ending of the 1980 hunger strike which is seriously at odds with the known facts, and the recorded memory of the leader of that protest.
This is how The Irish Times describes the finale:
On December 18th, 1980 the hunger strikers ended their first protest when strike leader Brendan Hughes called off the strike as Sean McKenna grew close to death, believing the British government had conceded on several demands. When the prisoners realised all five demands were not being met, they began to organise a second hunger strike.

The hunger strike did not end that way. It ended when Brendan Hughes made good on a promise he gave to Sean McKenna earlier in the protest not to let him die. When Hughes was informed by trusted medical staff that McKenna was close to death and could not survive much longer he took the unilateral decision to permit his transfer to hospital where his life was saved.
The British offer arrived afterwards and had nothing to do with Hughes’ decision.
This is what Hughes told Anthony McIntyre during his interview for the Boston College archive:
…After Sean asked me, I gave him a guarantee that I would not let him die. A few days later – now, I want to try and get the sequence correct here. Dr [David] Ross –he was the main doctor looking after the hunger strikers – came and informed me that Sean had only hours to live. It’s possible they were playing brinkmanship with me at this stage. And it’s possible that the cells were bugged and that they picked up what I had said to Sean. And they knew that if Sean went into a deep coma, that I would intervene. And that’s exactly what happened. Dr Ross came to me and told me that Sean would die within hours and he wanted permission … to take Sean to hospital. And this took place. There was a sudden rush of activity; prison orderlies took Sean on a stretcher up the wing. I was standing in the wing with Father Toner, Father Reid and Dr Ross … and I shouted up after Dr Ross, ‘Feed him.’ I had no guarantee at that point that anything was going to come from the British, no guarantee whatsoever. We all knew that they had offered us this deal (made at an earlier stage in the hunger strike) we had no guarantee that the deal would go through. We only had their word for it. The hunger strike was called off before the British document arrived. It was only later that night, I think; it was very late at night that Father Meagher*** and Bobby [Sands] arrived at my cell with the document. (Voices From The Grave – p 239)
There is another aspect of The Irish Times proposal, as described, that gives me cause for greater dismay. As any serious student of the period knows, a huge controversy has raged for many years now about the account of events dealing with a British offer to settle the protest given by Richard O’Rawe, a former IRA prisoner and public relations officer for the IRA prisoners during the hunger strike.
O’Rawe’s version, which he has written about in two widely acclaimed books, describes how a British proposal to resolve the hunger strike after the first four deaths was first accepted by the the prisoner’s leader, Brendan MacFarlane, but then rejected after an intervention from Gerry Adams, who headed a special Provisional Army Council committee charged with overseeing the protest.
Two members of the Army Council have told O’Rawe that they knew nothing about the exchange between Adams and MacFarlane or any of the negotiations with the British, which, if true, suggests that Adams kept all this secret from his comrades.
The truth of this is crucial. Because the British proposal was declined and the hunger strike thereby carried on, Owen Carron was able to stand for Bobby Sands’ vacated Fermanagh-South Tyrone seat unopposed by the SDLP, thereby guaranteeing his victory.
Had the protest ended with the British proposal, the SDLP surely would have ended its self-imposed ordinance not to oppose any hunger strike candidate in the constituency, the Nationalist vote would have split and almost certainly a Unionist, and not Owen Carron, would have triumphed at the by-election.
So accepting or refusing the British offer, as described by Richard O’Rawe, did more than determine whether hunger strikers woud die; the decision could and would determine the outcome of the Fermanagh-South Tyrone by-election and with it, the future direction of Sinn Fein’s political journey.
When the hunger strike finally did end, a Sinn Fein leadership proposal to adopt the strategy of electoral intervention at the party’s annual ard-fheis was immensely strengthened by the sight of Owen Carron, an elected Westminster MP, sitting with the platform leadership, visible evidence of the effectiveness of the strategy.
More importantly, had the Provos lost Fermanagh-South Tyrone – Bobby Sands’ seat – to the SDLP, the blow to republican morale would have been grievous, and support for electoralism proportionately damaged. But Carron’s victory meant that the move was overwhelmingly approved by Sinn Fein delegates. Logic suggests that continuing the hunger strike protest strengthened the hand of those in the Provo leadership who saw electoral politics as the way ahead.
From that SF decision to stand in elections on a strategic rather than a tactical basis, i.e. like all other normal political parties, was planted the seed of the peace process. And it would be no exaggeration to say that the seed was fertilised and made ready for planting when the proposed British deal to end the protest much earlier was turned down thanks to the intervention of the outside leadership.
Sinn Fein, of course, vigorously rejects O’Rawe’s account and so any treatment of the subject has to examine the argument the party makes – mostly by Danny Morrison and not at all by Gerry Adams who has remained silent on the matter. But all this should be aired. It is beyond argument, surely, that this episode is a stand alone candidate for inclusion in The Irish Times series.
It is such an important chapter not just in the history of the hunger strikes but in the history of the Troubles, and the subsequent peace process, that it merits a separate slot in any serious discussion of the 1980-1981 prison disputes.
But The Irish Times has managed to ignore it, at worst – or, at best, bury it in a wider discussion.
Whatever the reason this is not the most auspicious start to a series aimed at getting us all to re-think the hunger strikes!


  1. "The truth will out" this is a must if republicans and the cause we aspire to is ever to regain a morality which in my opinion was lost by the underhand and ego driven dealings of a few, the seed of the "peace Process" as Anthony states was planted over the decision to stand in future elections ,planted as Richard O Rawe pointed out on withholding the water of life to those brave men who were sacrificed as nothing more than pawns in their game,quisling $inn £eind have went on to build a political empire but as we know its is corrupt from head to toe and PIRA once a name to conjure up a certain pride is now referred to in derisory terms as RAFIA, and a once principled organisation is now infested by carpetbaggers touts gangsters and wannbes,so it seems to me that the seeds Adams and his kitchen cabinet sowed have not advanced the republican cause to which so many have given their all including that supreme sacrifice by those 12 hungerstrikers who died for their principles and their comrades but in fact through their inept and corrupt handling they have set back that cause and copperfastened partition, they really have sold their souls for bags of gold and legs of hairy bacon, that is why I think the truth needs to be told about those dark awful days I doubt it ever will,apart from the few brave people like O Rawe Anthony and those who are brave enough to stand up to those thugs who now administer British rule here.Westminster seats and swearing the oath of allegiance is next on the treacherous list.

  2. Marty,

    Richard comprehensively changed narrative. Carrie caught the crucial 55 hours in forensic detail - neither of them are part of this. It is immediately devalued when it is denied that sort of input.


  3. I notice that King’s College London is well represented, my impression of this College is that it was always overly influenced by imperialist theories from such advanced war mongers like Frank Kitson on dealing with Insurgeny's and terrorists. It is not immediately apparent the relevance of some of the proposed contributors though one of King's college Alumni/lecturer has some expertise to share on "Informers, Agents, the IRA and British Counter-insurgency strategy during the Northern Ireland Troubles, 1969-1998" it could be interesting to see if or how he connects his expertise with the Hunger Strike.

    Although ROR has not been invited to contribute that does not mean that any of the contributors will not address his contribution to the wider HS debate. It is even possible that his absence might not negatively impact on the project because if his revelations are picked up on then it could improve the debate to have academic annalists give their researched perspectives.

  4. Without doubt both have( Richard agus Carrie) contributed to bringing to the public,s attention that bitter pill of fact over the fiction that those revisionists would have us swallow,it is now worth thinking about reproducing Carries time line here again it is powerful .

  5. Its been known since the time of the Blanket Protest that it wasn't just the Dark's promise to Sean McKenna that resulted in the ending of the First Hunger Strike. One of those those to the fore in pushing the lie that the Brits reneged on an offer to end that hunger strike never had any intention of dying. I know this because I was along with his cousin in the canteen just after it had started when he informed us that there was no way he was going to die.

    I remember putting it to Jake Jackson whom I had shared a cell with and he was livid as he had already been told by that person. He said why did he wait until it started to tell me this?

    Coming up to the end of the Hunger Strike this person was pressuring The Dark to end it. Tom McFeely as I remember told a few people about this after the Hunger Strikes.

    I only mention this because as I said this person is still pushing what he knows to be a blatant lie.

    By the way the Fr. Meagher Document had one telling line....'Prisoners could wear civilian type clothing during the working week'.... There was absolutely no way that was being accepted and in fact they tried to introduce the 'civilian type clothing' to a wing or two and it was rejected.

    There was nothing to renege on and if there had been why did Bobby, on his return from the hospital, tell us all that, 'We had got nothing'?

  6. From the Cain website. Something which appears to keep slipping everyone's notice.

    Adams' Kitchen Cabinet had decided 'It would contest all Northern Ireland elections' just three days after the death of Micky Devine, which occurred on the day Owen Carron won the by-election. Therefore they had moved towards electoralism well before the Ard Fheis and seemingly under cover of Micky's death and burial and the Election 'victory'.

    Thursday 20 August 1981

    Tenth Hunger Striker Died

    Michael Devine (27) died after 60 days on hunger strike. Devine had been a member of the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA). The family of Patrick McGeown, who had been on hunger strike for 42 days, agreed to medical intervention to save his life.
    A by-election was held in Fermanagh / South Tyrone to elect a Member of Parliament (MP) to Westminster to the seat that became vacant on the death of Bobby Sands. Owen Carron, who had been Sands' campaign manager, was proposed by Sinn Féin (SF). Carron won the by-election with an increased number of votes over the total achieved by Sands. The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) had again decided not to contest the election.

    Sunday 23 August 1981

    Having won the Fermanagh / South Tyrone seat for the second time Sinn Féin (SF) announced that in future it would contest all Northern Ireland elections.

  7. Marty

    I can't see the new insights into the HS being overlooked or side stepped by every contributor to the series or then it would not achieve the Times objectives for why they are undertaking this series. ROR and Carrie can continue building on what they have achieved but the Irish Times Series could be the real litmus test to see what impact their narratives have had on overall debate.

  8. Diplock Court,

    you might be right but I wouldn't be too confident.


    that whole test period after the first hunger strike was a ruse by us to bounce the public into believing we had won. We had to set the scene for the admin to take a fall to pave the way for the second hunger strike. Those two wings that suspended the strike was a strategic hoax. Bobby was playing with the weak hand he had been dealt as a result of the end of the first hunger strike. You might recall the day after it ended, we were trying to negotiate to wear pyjamas in clean cells as recuperation/convalescence type wear post protest. That was the same thing - create the illusion that there was real movement and then when no clothes came without us conforming blame the Brits for shafting us and reneging. I think Morrison in later years has acknowledged that the first strike collapsed and that his victory parade along the Falls was an attempt to buy time and prevent disintegration and the collapse of public support. Tough decisions being made in a context of limited choices. Yet none of it talks away from the accuracy of what you outline.

  9. AM

    Im not overly confident but ROR's account is out there and I do not see how so many academics could collectively fail to take it into consideration? For anyone concerned that they all would, maybe they could write to all or a few of the listed contributors and draw their attention to ROR's account. Just a suggestion.

    If anyone did write to any of the contributors then if that contributor's article deliberately ignored available and relevant stuff pertinent to their article then they might be open to discrediting their own article.

  10. Diplock Court,

    it is the weight they afford it that might be more the issue.

    Already as Dixie has pointed out they are running with one of the wholly unsubstantiated myths.

  11. AM

    They will write what they will. But for anyone concerned about facts being left out or skewed then it might be useful for them to compile a checklist of facts and their sources which some academic might appreciate to save time on research. You provided the list of all the contributors -what could be easier?

  12. getting the time to put it together! Might well be the way to go

  13. diplockcourts

    This site has a list of all the contributors, including their arguments both for and against ROR's claims. Clearly Ricky has come out of this with his reputation intact as can be seen by reading through it.

    Any true academic will surely study this excellent website...

  14. Dixie

    You are right but academics can also be lazy. AM is right too about any prejudgment and weight they give to the facts. Which is why bullet point facts an one side of an A4 page can help them focus -or later come back to haunt them for ignoring facts brought to their attention before their article is published.

  15. they will give o rawe a few paragraphs and then the next day they will give mandy dorrison two pages, the msm are the msm and they will never change. we have this and thank god for it, i just saw on the news there the photo of a teenager who was murdered and disappeared by a gang called the unknowns 30 years ago today, although they didnt say that on the rte. i hope they find the remains of columba mc veigh. God be good to him.

  16. It was the Sunday Times which blew Adams' lies of no offer out the window when that paper released papers from the 1981 Hunger Strike which they received under the FOI...Surely the Irish Times would be aware of this? - The content of the documents are contained within the website Long Kesh Info.

    Talking about academics, I've often referred people to the book 'The IRA and Armed Struggle' by the Spanish academic Rogelio Alonso. In it there's a chapter on the Hunger Strikes and he quotes the late Pat Beag McKeown. It makes for harrowing reading as Pat spoke of the 'Spiral of Silence' meaning the Hunger Strikers were kept in the dark as to what was going on. He referred to Big Tom McElwee having doubts and wanting Bik McFarlane to step aside.

    More shocking is the part where he referred to Micky Devine who told him that the Hunger Strikes should end when he died. Pat put it to him as to why they shouldn't end it before he died. Micky replied, 'Because I don't want to be the one who ended it.' meaning that by that stage men were dying so as not to let down those who died before them.

    They were dying not knowing that the Brits had given them a way out, mainly our own clothes.

    The interview with Pat Beag was carried out long before Ricky published 'Blanketmen'.

  17. For Bobby and the lads;