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.