On the evening of my very first parole from prison after almost 14 years banged up, I was a passenger in a car driven by my brother heading to Ardoyne. I asked him to take the Crumlin Road route rather than the more convenient one via West Circular Road and Twaddell Avenue. I wanted to view the city’s jail which I had previously spent a few spells in.
It was not nostalgia that spurred me. Four months earlier a close friend had been caught on an IRA bombing operation and was now confined within the walls of the foreboding structure. It was one of those gestures that quietly conveyed the sentiment that I had not forgotten: that even in what was a time of joy for me, his travails still figured in my mind.
Sometime later, the H-Blocks well behind me, I was crossing the Mersey by ferry to The Wirall. I was in the city of Liverpool for one of the soccer matches and also to visit the Anfield memorial to the 96 fans unlawfully killed by South Yorkshire Police at Sheffield in 1989. During the crossing I wrote to the imprisoned friend, the undulations of the river currents probably exacerbating my frequently commented upon poor handwriting. He had visited me and kept in touch after his previous release from prison on a number of occasions, and I was reciprocating now that he was back in for a very long stretch.
I have previously laid out my views on Pat Sheehan, even though by then we were no longer in touch - apart from a few chance encounters where we would chew the fat before going our separate ways - or had maintained the friendship we once had. I guess that is politics: his choice rather than mine. Although it remains something for which no explanation was ever forthcoming. C'est La Vie.
Pat had spent 55 days on the 1981 hunger strike before it was ordered to a halt by IRA leaders outside the jail. I was seriously relieved he had made it through although it seemed touch and go as he had contracted a serious liver malady which did not augur well for him. The experience from that dark and dangerous era is what led him to Derry last week where there was a commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the end of the hunger strike.
While in the city he spoke to the Derry Journal. Two things struck me. One, a glaring inaccuracy which it is difficult to pass off as an oversight; the other a highly contentious view with little evidence to support it. I am not the corrector of false narratives and these days let much that is inaccurate run past me. But on the 40th anniversary of the deaths of the volunteers described by Pat as 'probably ten of the best men that we had', and in the year when a previously unpublished comm by Bobby Sands came to light, raising serious questions for some leadership figures as to the malign role they played, I thought it worthwhile to commit to the record.
If you consider that the whole rationale behind the criminalisation policy was to isolate and marginalise republicans and ultimately to defeat the IRA - the outcome was actually the opposite of that … the strategy of the British to defeat the IRA and defeat the republican struggle failed in 1981 and I think we are still feeling the repercussions of that even now.
The republican struggle ended in failure with the advent of the Good Friday Agreement. The political project today is a constitutional nationalist one which was the antithesis of the IRA's armed campaign. The only thing that has shifted the constitutional axis is Brexit, not Sinn Fein’s politicking.
I wasn’t in that wing at the time when this discussion is supposed to have taken place between ‘Bik’ and Richard. If you ask me it would have been impossible to have had a conversation like that and not for everyone else or at least some others to have heard it because the currency at that time in the prison was scéal [news/information - literally story]. Who had a bit of info? Who knew a wee bit here or there? If the leadership were up at the window or down at the pipe having a conversation about the situation someone else would have heard it. That is my view and there is nobody, as far as I’m aware of, backing up what Richard says.
Nobody backing it up?
The cellmate of Richard O'Rawe at the time of the conversation Pat Sheehan suggests never happened had this to say to Eamonn McCann:
“Richard isn’t a liar. He told the truth in his book. I heard what passed between Richard and Bik (McFarlane). I remember Richard saying, ‘Ta go leor ann,’ and the reply, ‘Aontaim leat.’ There’s just no question that that happened.”
Gerard Clarke, who was also on the wing at the time, confirmed at a public event in Derry in 2009 that he too had heard the conversation between O'Rawe and McFarlane and that O'Rawe's account was accurate.
I admire Pat Sheehan's fortitude from the days when he was an IRA volunteer, willing to die on hunger strike. Eschewing a ballot box in one hand and an armalite in somebody else's, he was willing to lead from the front and take part in a war he knew could not be won. All of that makes him courageous, not correct.
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