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Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 


Richard O’Rawe
New Island


From the Prologue

It was eight o'clock on the evening of 5 July 1981. Inside the cells in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh Prison were hundreds of IRA pris­oners, my friends and comrades, men who had been captured and jailed for their part in our decade-long war to expel the British from the North of Ireland. For over three months some of our number had been on hunger strike to achieve political status, and four comrades had died slow, agonising deaths. I was public-relations officer for the prisoners and Brendan 'Bik' McFarlane was their commander. That night there was a hush of expectation about the wing because Bik had been summoned to a meeting earlier that day in the prison hospital. As a result of that meeting, Bik and I had urgent business to discuss. As usual, this was done in Irish, so that the hated 'screws', the prison warders, wouldn't be able to understand us. I called Bik up to his cell window.

'Well, Rick?' he asked.

'I think there's enough there, Bikso.'

'I agree. I'll write to the outside an' let them know our thinkin'.'

With these words, the leadership of the republican prisoners in the H-Blocks accepted a set of proposals that had been presented to them by the 'Mountain Climber', an intermediary from the British government - four days before the fifth hunger striker, Joe McDonnell, died. Why then did Joe and five other hunger strikers eventually die? In this book, I have attempted to answer that question and to shed some much-needed light on the real story of the hunger strike. In doing so, I believe I have peeled away the layers of carefully scripted myths that have surrounded this momentous event in Irish history, the most insidious being that the prisoners were always in complete control of the hunger strike. As verified by the above conversation, if the prisoners had been free to make the critical decisions, Joe McDonnell and our five comrades who followed him to their graves would be alive today.

Some may ask why I am writing about these things now. Why did it take twenty-four years for me to tell this story? There are several reasons. I was told in 1991, when I privately criticised the role of the IRA Army Council in the hunger strike, that I could be shot for opening my mouth. The threat had the desired effect. As well as that, I was reluctant to expose certain individuals in the leadership of the republican movement to the possibility of criticism, while other IRA Volunteers were giving their lives in the same armed struggle for which my ten dead comrades had died. That armed struggle is over. But, most importantly of all, I cannot, in all conscience, continue to acquiesce in the duplicity that has surrounded the hunger strike from that time. I am convinced that the truth, as I knew it to be, should be told and that I have a duty to the dead hunger strikers to explain fully the events that led to their deaths.

I bear no grudge against the republican movement or any individual in it. In fact, I believe that the movement has been the engine for change in the North and, in my experience, republicans are dedicated people who believe not only in unifying and freeing our country, but also in equality and justice for all — including unionists. I met some of the best people one could encounter in the movement.

I dedicate this book to our ten dead comrades, who gave their lives for the Republic.