Sunday, March 22, 2009

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The Blelloch Interview

A couple of days ago I received an e mail from a friend with a link which took me to the well designed website of the Bobby Sands Trust. Once there I found myself looking at what appeared to be a valuable historical document and one that any researcher of the period in time referred to would want archived. It was an interview recorded by the US academic and author Padraig O’Malley with John Blelloch, a key British official central to events pertaining to the hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981. The interview took place in 1986 and O’Malley was interested in bringing more light to bear on the era of five to six years past. He later went on to write a book about the hunger strike Biting At The Grave, which while dubious in terms of the analytical method used to explore and explain motivation was nevertheless packed with useful insight and information.

Why the interview has just appeared is not explained. Nor are we told who supplied it to the Trust or when it came into its possession. If Blelloch’s side passed it on we are not aware of it. Nor are we sure that it came from O’Malley. It might well have been stumbled upon as so often happens. The Trust has a responsibility to find these things and would be foolish not to seize upon them whenever the opportunity arises and from whatever the source. While knowledge of the pathway from donor to recipient is useful for allowing a more finely tuned appreciation of where the debate is at, for now the matter of origins is a secondary issue. More than a quarter century after the hunger strikes it is inevitable that people will be more forthcoming and the presumption of an underhand agenda on their part may be misplaced. What is important is that the widest possible range of information be brought into the public sphere so that people can arrive at their own judgements. The Bobby Sands Trust is to be commended for placing this important transcript in the public domain.

According to the Trust:

What is important about the interview is that it represents an insight into the psyche of the British at crucial periods in the hunger strikes, particularly at the time of mediation attempts by others, including the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace [ICJP] … O’Malley twice interviewed Blelloch: in September 1986 and again on 23rd November 1988. Below is an unedited extract from the September 1986 interview dealing with the death of IRA Volunteer Joe McDonnell, and is followed by Blelloch’s analysis of the first hunger strike. It is illuminating in that the interview was conducted long before the publication of Ten Men Dead, which reveals the republican analysis, and it shows the intransigence of the British government throughout both hunger strikes.

Having finished reading the interview this morning, like the Trust I concluded that Blelloch - whom the Trust claims was a member of MI5, a view I have no reason to dissent from - sought to present a very unyielding position. What puzzled me is why he chose to conceal the initiative by his sister spook agency MI6 which seems to have been involved in a more conciliatory approach just prior to the death of IRA volunteer Joe McDonnell. Blelloch had to have known of that initiative but restricted his comments to the efforts by the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace, an intervention already well documented. What was not in the pubic domain Blelloch was clearly not going to place there. O’Malley clearly did not know of the MI6 mission otherwise he would have tested the Blelloch perspective against it. Blelloch chose not to enlighten him.

It was not until the following year that David Beresford brought the MI6 role to the attention of the public with his fine book Ten Men Dead. He only discovered it because, according to Richard O’Rawe, a comm from the period referring to the MI6 operative Mountain Climber that was not supposed to make its way to Beresford evaded the Sinn Fein filter. Sinn Fein knew of MI6’s involvement but for its own reasons decided not to make the matter public. We can only speculate that this was because the party felt there was no point in allowing the British to don the mantle of compassion and flexibility when it seemed clear to everyone that they were unbending throughout the period. Indeed Sinn Fein’s most consistent theme has been that the British Prime Minister of the time, Margaret Thatcher, was totally hostile to any bridging of the gap between her government’s position and the demands of the dying prisoners. Sinn Fein, or people close to it, also relied heavily on this inflexible trait of Thatcher in their effort to refute the charge by Richard O’Rawe that the British through MI6 made a substantial offer to the prisoners which the prison leadership accepted but was overruled on by elements within the outside leadership responsible for day to day management of the hunger strike.

In 1986 both Sinn Fein and the British, then on opposite sides of a bitter armed conflict, had their own reasons for wanting to portray the Tory government of Margaret Thatcher as being resolute and determined not to bend in the face of pressure. The British for ideological and then current strategic reasons wanted to maintain an image of a prime minister not for turning as she and the Conservatives set about rolling back the social democratic state. Any suggestion that Thatcher might have wilted in the face of determined republican opposition at the centre of which was the IRA for whom she had a visceral hatred, would have undermined that position. Sinn Fein, for it part, always found it easier to get its message across if its opponent was effectively maligned. In Thatcher it found an easy albeit willing target.

Whether Thatcher was as unbending as has been suggested by Blelloch is called into question by his unwillingness to disclose information that would permit the development of an alternative narrative of the hunger strikes. That narrative has since been developed by Richard O’Rawe in his book Blanketmen and has maintained an elongated stage life despite attempts to force it into the wings. Blelloch’s account does nothing to reinforce O’Rawe’s perspective but at the same time fails to undermine him largely because it declined to trespass on an area then marked ‘prohibited’. By withholding vital information Blelloch has undermined his own ostensible commitment to be forthcoming. Why the Bobby Sands Trust failed to draw attention to this is something best explained by itself.

Blelloch’s account is so flat and delivered in typical British mandarin style, that if it were to be integrated into any assault aimed at exploding the O’Rawe thesis it will produce the blast of a damp squib. It will hardy even make the 7 day wonder category. 7 days is a long time in politics, long enough to see perspectives turned completely on their head.

2 comments :

Anonymous said...

According to Allison Morris in the Irish News ("Hunger Strike ‘deal’ papers published," 20 March): "The transcript will be published on the Bobby Sands Trust website (www.bobbysandstrust.com) today, after coming into the possession of former Sinn Fein director of publicity Danny Morrison, ..."

AM said...

I think it's clear enough that Danny got it. That is what he is supposed to do at the Trust. But he is the recipient not the sender. The route to the Trust interested me more than the fact that the Trust got it. A document like that has to be grabbed no matter how it arrived. So there is no criticism of the Trust here for procuring it or publishing it. I imagine it is a recently acquired document otherwise it would have appeared before on the Trust's website. And I wonder why, despite the fact that it is 23 years old, it has just appeared. I hope more documents from the time appear. There must be lots of them and whether they challenge what we believe or affirm it they should be valued nonetheless.