Sometime during the week I listened to a lively BBC Radio Foyle debate between former Provisional IRA prisoners, Richard O’Rawe and Raymond McCartney. The discussion focussed exclusively on the events of early July 1981 when the republican hunger striker Joe McDonnell was close to death. O’Rawe’s position has been consistent in that he has never deviated from his claim that the Provisional leadership rejected a decision by the prison leadership to accept a British offer that would have ended the strike, thus ensuring no further loss of life. McCartney, a member of the 1980 hunger strike team, has been no less consistent than O’Rawe in his rejection of this account. For him any offers that were made were fatally compromised by the refusal of the British government to provide adequate specification for the means of their enactment.
Before the debate started I was firmly of the opinion that O’Rawe’s version of events was correct. I have long felt that there was a more authentic ring to his claims than to the dismissal of those claims by his critics. Not just because on other issues I have heard many of those critics not infrequently deny the most obvious and try to argue that black was white, but because on all of the occasions that I have discussed the matter with O’Rawe over the past decade he was so thorough and methodical in his marshalling of the evidence and appeared to have no reason to make it up as his detractors sometimes like to suggest. I have also had the opportunity to discuss the matter with some of those opposed to him. And while I never sensed that they were being dishonest in what they said to me I was never with them frequently enough to allow their arguments to grow on me. And some of those who waged their critique of O’Rawe on radio and TV tended to sound like hectoring bullies more intent on silencing him than allowing him to make any case.
In spite of that I tried not to let my prejudice shape my hearing of the Radio Foyle exchange. I could not deny that I knew from experience that McCartney would put party before accuracy. He did this in AP/RN comments hostile to both Tommy Gorman and me after we had accused the Provisional IRA of killing Joe O’Connor of the Real IRA in October 2000. He made the charge that we were guilty of fabrication. Yet I remained willing to listen as fairly as I could to any case that he might make against O’Rawe and judge it on its merits and not on the baggage and bias from yesteryear.
After the debate I concluded that nothing had emerged during it that would cause me to rethink my view on it. If persuasiveness was to be measured in points awarded for content, tone and conviction, then O’Rawe won the exchange. His argument had an internal coherence not so pronounced in McCartney’s. His delivery was weak however and McCartney scored significantly in the way listeners heard things rather than what they actually heard. In the end conviction gave O’Rawe the majority verdict. He spoke as if he was genuinely convinced of what he was saying. This corresponds to a wider view out there which holds that O’Rawe, rightly or wrongly, memory serving him or failing him, at least believes what he has to say. McCartney while presumably believing his own account seemed to lack the passion of O’Rawe in making the argument. He came across more like a politician defending a position which may have been right or could have been wrong but which needed defending nonetheless.
Central to McCartney’s critique was reiteration that O’Rawe’s argument had been persistently demolished by almost anyone challenging him. Hyperbole has long been a feature of McCartney’s discourse, at one time making itself manifest in a suggestion that Ian Paisley serving as First Minister in the Stormont Executive was a gigantic step toward a united Ireland. On this occasion the paradox seems to have escaped him that he is taking part in a radio debate seeking to demolish an argument that he feels was demolished four years ago. Moreover, if the dissection of O’Rawe has been so thorough that it has effectively demolished him, why has the haemorrhaging of support been away from the McCartney perspective and not from O’Rawe? No one, we are aware of, who believed O’Rawe at the start disbelieves him today. The same cannot be said for those who initially believed his detractors. There is a growing body of opinion rowing in behind O’Rawe - who initially fought his corner without much help from seconds – in stating that the Sinn Fein leadership has a case to answer.
Another dubious assertion employed by McCartney is his dismissal of O’Rawe on the grounds that his book Blanketmen was serialised by the Sunday Times which according to McCartney was behaving atrociously during the hunger strike. The very fact that his own party is in the executive bed with the DUP means that positions held by people in 1981 have little bearing on how they are to be viewed today. The DUP’s problem in 1981 was that all of us in the H-Blocks did not die. None of that has prevented Sinn Fein from aligning with the Paisleyite outfit.
In recent months Danny Morrison has argued robustly about the sequence of events that took place in and around the H-Blocks on the 5th of July 1981. And because Morrison has been so precise he has unwittingly helped narrow the debate down, for those trying to make sense of claim and counter-claim, to one issue. That is whether the conversation that O’Rawe claims took place between him and the IRA’s prison leader Brendan McFarlane did in fact happen. It was in the course of that conversation, if O’Rawe is correct, that both men agreed to accept an offer from the British government conveyed to them via Morrison. If O’Rawe establishes that the crucial conversation took place it is effectively game over in terms of any argument against his credibility and motives. Raymond McCartney seems to be the only person in the opposition camp so far capable of grasping this. During his debate with O’Rawe he moved to offset any credit that might accrue O’Rawe’s way in the event of evidence supporting the Blanketmen author's claims regarding the conversation between himself and McFarlane emerging.
My own view, given the evidence that I have seen, is that O’Rawe will be vindicated. Up until now O’Rawe’s shifting of the narrative pertaining to the 1981 hunger strike away from the Sinn Fein leadership has been incremental. That could change substantially if witness evidence in particular emerges from the wing O’Rawe was on at the time of the disputed exchange between himself and McFarlane. In that event there might follow a decisive shift in the battle for control of the hunger strike narrative which could see O’Rawe’s account move into pole position.
What a turn up for the hunger strike books that would be.