Sunday, April 5, 2009

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The Thatcher Intervention

Two weeks ago I commented on an interview that appeared on the website of the Bobby Sands Trust. The view of the Trust, my own also, was that the document was valuable in that it purported to shed light on some of the issues associated with the hunger strike era. All such documents, flawed as they may be, are coveted nuggets; the building blocks of historical reconstruction, which whether challenging to or supportive of our pre-existing perspectives, should be welcomed for their ability to enlighten us.

The interviewee was John Blelloch, a key NIO official and alleged MI5 operative. The Trust rightly felt that this placed him on the inside track from where he was pivotally placed to fully understand the governmental processes at play. It would also enable him, were he so inclined, to misrepresent the same processes. At no point did the Trust issue a health warning to indicate that Blelloch’s account, because he was what Sinn Fein had longed termed a securocrat, should be treated with some scepticism. It was sold as a fixed proof of an equally fixed British state position in 1981. No allowance was made for the possibility that it might have been a self-serving fiction aimed to conceal rather than reveal.

For the Trust, Blelloch was presented as confirming that there was no hint of flexibility on the part of the British government during the strike and in particular in and around the time of the death of Joe McDonnell, the fifth striker to die. For my part, I felt the Blelloch document was an important addition to our understanding of how the British five years after the strike were still intent on withholding the truth from us.

Because I had serious reservations about the purpose of Blelloch’s interview and had solid reason to believe that in terms of documents it was not the most important one available to researchers, I concluded my article with the comment that ‘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.’

Today, 14 days later rather than the magical 7, the Blelloch perspective would indeed seem to have been turned on its head. The Sunday Times ran with a feature article in its prestigious Focus section which purported to show that the British prime minister of the day, Margaret Thatcher, had made serious overtures to elements within the leadership of the IRA aimed at ending the hunger strike. When informed by those IRA elements that the tone rather than the substance was the obstacle to a resolution Thatcher worked on more appropriate wording.

The Sunday Times based its findings on documentation supplied by the NIO to the journalist Liam Clarke. Because it is contemporaneous it has more weight than the Blelloch interview given five years after the event. Gerard Hodgins, an IRA hunger striker and the INLA leadership of the day both claim not to have been informed that such a settlement was on offer. Had they been aware of it the INLA would have intervened and ordered their volunteers, two of whom later died on hunger strike, to end their fast. Hodgins, for his part, armed with the same knowledge would not have embarked on hunger strike.

Today I looked at the Trust website in the hope that the documents featuring in the Sunday Times would have appeared there. They did not. Perhaps in time they will otherwise the Trust will leave itself open to the same allegation that, like Blelloch, it used his interview with a self-serving motive in mind. The documents available to the Sunday Times might not correspond to the Trust’s reading of events but deliberation on the era they address can not be definitively shaped by any one party with a dog in the fight, neither the Trust nor republicans such as Richard O’Rawe who challenge the official Sinn Fen narrative on the hunger strikes. If public understanding is to grow it needs to be informed - not managed and manipulated to produce stupification in the place of understanding - and all documents of relevance should be made available. There is no need for the Trust to remove the Blelloch document even though its value has rapidly diminished as a result of today’s revelations. It should stay there as a historical trace from one of the most difficult and contentious issues in modern Irish history. But the Trust should add the NIO documents so that people can weigh up for themselves the strengths and weaknesses of two distinct accounts.

The NIO documents reinforce the contention of Richard O’Rawe, author of Blanketmen, that just before the death of Joe McDonnell the British government made an offer which was acceptable to the prisoners. O’Rawe’s claims that the army council figure responsible for the day to day management of the hunger strike overruled the prisoners is now even more weighty than before. For his efforts O’Rawe was maligned, harangued, vilified, and described as having penned a scurrilous book. Par for the course in the suffocating world of Sinn Fein wherever an alternative voice is raised.

Prior to O’Rawe’s book there was one republican narrative of the hunger strike. Thatcher was vindictive and vengeful, alone bearing responsibility for the ten deaths. When the book emerged, the hostile way in which O’Rawe’s critics tried to neutralise him and denigrate his account, caused the pixellation in their own narrative to look a bit blurred. Nevertheless, if somewhat tarnished, it remained the dominant account. O’Rawe was out there but the picture he offered was far from focussed. It would take a lot of time before the mind’s eye could sufficiently adjust itself to take in what was being shown. With each passing gambit in the struggle for interpretation the narrative of the hunger strike has gradually slipped from Sinn Fein’s control and into the hands of O’Rawe. The hunger strike is no longer mentioned without O’Rawe being introduced as an alternative voice; one that increasingly draws more listeners. His critics have sought to depict him as pissing in the well. Others saw him as an anti-pollutant dispersing the mud that had gathered in the well, allowing us to peer into it even more deeply than before.

The hunger strike is now a sharply contested event in the history of republicanism giving rise to sharply divided opinions. Ten men died and the only thing we can be sure of is that Thatcher bears culpability for the deaths of the first four.

13 comments :

Anonymous said...

It seems incredible to believe that the INLA army council had no input on the hunger strike committee surely with their men on hunger strike they should have had more control on the negotiations

Anonymous said...

the leadership killed more than thatcher

John D said...

I agree that all information pertaining to this period needs to be made public, and at the very least made available to the families. It is so unfortunate that this event, which had such a seminal influence on my own politicisation, and which seemed to be beyond any besmirching, has now become a battleground between various shades of republican opinion. If ever there was evidence of the implosion of the republican struggle, this is it. Not so much the events themselves, because I think there was probably a very fluid confusing situation at the time of the hungerstrike, but more in the current unseemly scramble to excavate more and more 'evidence' to seek to discredit each other.

Sophie said...

I don't think they are discrediting each other, I think a certain narrative was put out at the time about a situation that was not only fluid but very emotional, and that particular narrative is now being challenged. It has every right to be challenged, not only for the families, but for everyone in the north and elsewhere that helped - or believed in - or gave support to the republican struggle.

I can see and even understand how the Belloch interview kept to the script in saying that the position of the British government was that they had not shifted their position, that the Iron lady was never for turning. But if as suggested there was an offer, if someone had it in his pocket and didn't put it forth, and kept the leadership of the INLA in the dark then that cover up should be revealed.

The families, and wider public are entitled to the truth.

Do I believe that the shinners would want the hunger strike to continue until they'd got the by election. Yes I do. While they may not have wanted the fast in the beginning, it certainly grew on them, and by the time it was nearing its end Sinn Fein were able to see the political aspect to the struggle.

The problem for them was so many died in the short interim between the meeting and the by election. Maybe they didn't bargain on so many deaths in that short time....

Goodness knows, I only hope as time goes on that more documents will be revealed and events pieced together. When that happens, if anyone lied or decieved - history will be hard on them.

Malachi O'Doherty said...

Mackers, a name leapt out at me from the new documents. Phillip Woodfield was included in all the discussions. I take him to be the same PJ Woodfield who met with Adams and O Conail in June 72 to settle terms for the July 72 ceasefire. There's a boy would have a few stories to tell.

Anonymous said...

When I first read O'Rawe, I thought his account was plausible. But there seemed to be enough wiggle room for competing interpretations. AM's interview with O'Rawe, and O'Rawe's subsequent exchanges with the many defenders of the faith closed that door somewhat. Clarke's documents seem to slam it shut.

The one problem that I have is given the pressures of the HS and what was a stake, could Adams and Hartley really see the political payoff for the rep mov in getting Carron elected? They couldn't really think that Sands' seat was worth risking the lives of the six -- right?

Was this a terrible miscalculation or is Adams really that devious? It is clear what Adams' intent has been around the GFA and the peace process -- I find it hard to assess what his intent was back in 1981.

The families deserve some answers.

Séamus MacB said...

You would need to have a degree in semantics to figure all this out. Yesterday in the Irish News, Danny Morrison "seemed" to suggest that there was an "offer" but no "deal". By "deal" he "seems" to mean that the hunger strikers wanted a representative from the Brits to appear in the jail and make an offer in writing. They, the Brits, were not prepared to do that. So there was "offer" but no "deal". Is that an accurate assessment?

Seán Mór said...

I read that article myself Séamas MacB... and I was asking myself the same question. If I recall correctly, Danny Morrison also made this point at the time of the original Ó Rawe 'revelations'... he seemed to suggest that Richard O' Rawe was blurring the lines between the toing and fro-ing of negotiations and offers and actual real deals and agreements. That said, I don't recall any talk even of 'offers' prior to O'Rawe's book.... although that might just be down to my own flawed grey matter...

Anonymous said...

From Ten Men Dead, 1987: "The Foreign Office, in its first offer..." (p293); "a vague offer" (p294); "The Mountain Climber also offered..."(p294); "parts of their offer were vague" - Bik McFarlane (p295); "nothing extra on offer" (p295); "offer" (p296); "what was on offer" (p297)etc., etc., etc.,

AM said...

Anonymous there was always organisational tension of sorts between the IRA and INLA within the prison despite the close personal friendships formed between members of both.

Anonymous, 'the leadership killed more than Thatcher'

I think we are a long way off from being able to say that. It is certainly not one of Richard O'Rawe's allegations. He lays the blame at the door of the Brits for the situation ever having developed and the failure to end it but claims that the issue is more complex and has raised questions to underline this point.

John D I think Sophie has answered the points about competing narratives rather than it simply being a means to discredit each other.

You call for the truth to become available but how does it? It will never be handed down on tablets of stone and will always be the outcome of disputes, the sort of debate that we are witnessing at the moment.

'there was probably a very fluid confusing situation at the time of the hungerstrike'

Probably true of many if not most great historic events. The task of the analyst is to bring some order to all of that. Richard O'Rawe is trying to do that as is Danny Morrison. Without some intelligible interpretive framework all history would look like a jumble.

I was interested in your expression the implosion of the republican struggle. It is not a position I would have ascribed to you until now. But is the evidence of that implosion really in the current debate? Is it not more to be found in the position SF finds itself in? For example, McGuinness standing with Robinson and Orde calling republicans traitors or calling for people to become touts; two examples from many.

Sophie,

'Do I believe that the shinners would want the hunger strike to continue until they'd got the by election. Yes I do.'

How do you explain the hunger strike continuing long after Carron's election?

Malachi, I imagine it is the same guy. Easy to check. They all have a lot of stories to tell!

Anonymous,

'The one problem that I have is given the pressures of the HS and what was a stake, could Adams and Hartley really see the political payoff for the rep mov in getting Carron elected? They couldn't really think that Sands' seat was worth risking the lives of the six -- right? Was this a terrible miscalculation or is Adams really that devious?'

I think this goes to the heart of what is taxing the minds of many people. You would want to be on absolutely firm ground with no possibility of subsidence before you would try hanging that one around anybody's neck.

I think O’Rawe’s account is accurate. He would be crazy to even go there unless he was certain. The question is why did the leadership overrule? I think that is where the debate is heading.

Séamus MacB and Seán Mór, this has added to the confusion. My attempt to make sense of it is as follows. Morrison says there was an offer. O'Rawe says the offer was put to him and McFarlane. They found it acceptable and said 'deal.' The leadership outside felt otherwise. Outside of that the whole thing becomes lost in endless definition. Sometimes I think Morrison and O’Rawe use different terms to describe the same thing.

Anonymous said...

anonymous wrote:
The one problem that I have is given the pressures of the HS and what was a stake, could Adams and Hartley really see the political payoff for the rep mov in getting Carron elected? They couldn't really think that Sands' seat was worth risking the lives of the six -- right? Was this a terrible miscalculation or is Adams really that devious?'
If you go to the Irish Times, i think it was a week or so after the hunger strike had ended, there is an interview with Adams in which he clearly suggests that he would want SF to adopt an electoral strategy soon - so if the notion was in his head then, why wouldn't it have been in his head just a few weeks before, when Carron was standing in the by-election, or a few months before when Sands had won the F-ST by-election and other prisoners had won seats to the Dail? The Sands and Dail elections changed the political lanscape for the Provos. Adams is too shrewd not to have seen that.
AM also asks Sophie: 'How do you explain the hunger strike continuing long after Carron's election?' Well, if it had been called off just after the election, it would have been plain to see that it had only been kept going so Carron could win. Suspicions would have begun then, not over 20 years later. Keeping it going provided the necessary camouflage. And anyway there were only 44 days between Carron's election on August 20th and the end of the hunger strike on October 3rd. 44 days is not even long enough to die on hunger strike.

AM said...

Anonymous, reference your observations from ten Men Dead, there is a similar but longer piece in Yesteday's Irish News from former prisoner Sile Darragh

AM said...

Anonymous, re post 12:04 AM, April 11, 2009:

I believe I heard Danny Morrison last week on radio saying at the time of the hunger strike he had no idea of an electoral strategy. I might have picked him up wrong, however. Generally, there are few I imagine who would dispute that SF had electoral ambitions. Joe Austin in an 1980s interview made the claim that the hunger strikes brought the electoral strategy forward by three years rather than caused it to happen.

The issue is not whether SF saw an electoral strategy but whether as a means of developing that strategy it sabotaged a settlement to the hunger strike. You present us with dots but fail to join them.

You further argue that by stopping the hunger strike immediately after Carron was elected suspicions would have been raised about SF motives and led to questions being asked. But these questions if they were going to be asked would have been the minute Carron appeared in the prison hospital in his so called ‘election suit.’

You position would appear further weakened by the claim ‘44 days is not even long enough to die on hunger strike.’ People were brought off the strike by family intervention in early September, in the case of one at around 70 days. 44 days suggests that the only people on hunger strike post Micky Devine’s death actually started the day he died. We know this not to be true.

There is a range of possibilities People are always on firmer ground when they speculate within the boundaries of the evidence available.