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Eilis O'Hanlon: Tell us truth on Thatcher offer to end hunger strike

A FEW years ago, Danny Morrison was interviewed for a BBC documentary on the Brighton bombing.

Later he expressed dissatisfaction with the programme because it failed to include comments by him which, Morrison said, placed the attack in context, not least his belief that "the bombing was a direct response to 1981, the hunger strike and what our community experienced under Thatcher".

His problem was that, even then, the idea that it was British intransigence alone that led the hunger strikers to their graves was already becoming unstitched.

Two years previously, Richard O'Rawe, who had been the IRA's second-in-command inside the Maze prison during the hunger strikes, published Blanketmen, one of the most detailed analyses yet of the republican prisoners' struggle for political status. O'Rawe's central contention was that there was an offer on the table from the British in early July 1981, which would have been acceptable to the prisoners had they been fully apprised of it, and which would have saved the lives of six of the hunger strikers. O'Rawe also argues that the prisoners were deliberately kept out of the loop by an outside cabal which, despite peddling the line that the prisoners' fate was in their own hands, decided to reject it.

When Blanketmen was published, it caused uproar in republican circles. Versions of these allegations had been circling for years; but O'Rawe couldn't be dismissed as one of the usual anti-republican suspects. He had been there at the heart of one of the Provos' most iconic events; as close to its martyred saints as it was possible to get. Many of the figures around at the time backed up his memory of that time, including fellow prisoners and others who had acted behind the scenes to secure a deal.

Morrison, in particular, started to feel the heat, because it was he who had acted as a bridge between the two camps, one inside and one outside the prison, in that period. He insisted that O'Rawe was wrong to say he had brought a possible deal to the prisoners on Sunday, July 5 -- a date that continues to be the focus of intense argument.

The release of the state papers from 1981 in London and Dublin this month was bound to reignite the debate as both sides sought to find further evidence for their respective positions in the now published secret documents. Morrison was quickest off the blocks, pouncing on a Downing Street memo which showed, in his interpretation, that the British did not formulate a final offer until the day after he went into the Maze. He went so far as to state that this "demolishes" O'Rawe's claims.

O'Rawe, in turn, said the state papers confirmed his own analysis, which was that a deal was there to be had

that weekend, following the deaths of the first four men and with the life of the fifth man, Joe O'Donnell, hanging in the balance. Indeed, he points out, Danny Morrison had previously conceded in interviews that he delivered an offer to the prisoners that day. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, fellow members of that IRA cabal outside the Maze which O'Rawe had accused of rejecting the offer, are on record as conceding the same. They're merely downplaying the significance of the offer now in order to counteract possible criticism of their own role, with their stories changing accordingly.

So the stalemate remains. Morrison is a sociable chap who has influential friends in the Irish media happy to peddle his version of events. He's been given a fair wind. O'Rawe is having a rougher time of it. He's cycling uphill against a strong gale of Sinn Fein propaganda. But his story needs to be told. Maybe too much has been written already about the 10 men who died on hunger strike and not enough about the more than 60 victims killed by the IRA that year as violence escalated on the back of the H Blocks protest, whose lost lives were no less precious. But the characters of the actors involved in that terrible period matter.

Northern Ireland came closer to civil war that year than at any time during the Troubles. Down here, the atmosphere was no less febrile and overheated. Two hundred people were hospitalised after violent protests outside the British embassy in Dublin; the country came to within a whisker of deploying the army against its own citizens. The idea that this atmosphere was deliberately stoked for political advantage is not only shocking, it remains relevant.

Sinn Fein rose to influence on the back of the hunger strikers, and continues to commercially exploit their iconic image (Bobby Sands' tea towel, anyone?) They are people for whom headstones are more like stepping stones to where they want to get; not even the prospect of civil war reins them in; and they're ruthless when challenged.

Most of the fiercest critics of Sinn Fein from within the republican movement have been forced to leave Belfast because the atmosphere for their families became too unpleasant. Richard O'Rawe stuck it out. It can't be easy. A private man, he has been accused of seeking some kind of glory with his claims.

I even remember, when his book was published, the absurd whispers going round Belfast that he was only saying what he did because he needed the money that a sensationalist bestseller would bring. It was a reminder of Sinn Fein's attitude to dissent. History has different versions, those involved have conflicting memories, but for them only the single officially sanctioned version must be the one to prevail, because it remains as useful to them now as it ever was.

They can change and refine and fine-tune their stories as often as they like, but they're merely playing semantic games. What they're clinging to now is the line that there was no "final" deal on offer before Joe O'Donnell died, but O'Rawe never said that there was, only that there was the basis for a deal which, with clarification, could have ended the hunger strike sooner. His enemies are engaged in the classic rhetorical tactic of refuting things he never said.

Morrison leapt upon the newly released State papers with all the smartaleckery of a student debater who thinks that by unpicking minor details in his opponent's case he can thereby render the whole argument invalid. The main thrust of O'Rawe's argument was confirmed by the state papers, which showed the Irish and British were not only increasingly convinced that the hunger strikers were being used as pawns in a political game, but also well aware of tensions between the leadership inside and outside the Maze.

They also confirm the most important point of all. There was an offer. The details may have remained to be thrashed out, but there was the bones of an offer that may well have been acceptable to the prisoners, but for some reason it was rejected by an inner circle in the republican movement which didn't even clear its decisions with the IRA leadership, as Ruairi O Bradaigh, on the Army Council at the time, has confirmed.

Why that offer was rejected will be debated for a long time to come; more revelations may yet emerge; many state papers are still embargoed. But Sinn Fein did very well out of the decision to continue the hunger strikes through six further agonising deaths.

Sunday Independent