Bradley, O'Rawe frozen out for breaking ranks
Liam Clarke, Sunday Times – 1 November 2010
During the Troubles, anyone applying to join the Provisional IRA was warned they could expect imprisonment or death as the reward for their involvement. Sometimes it was added, half as a joke, that the one perk the Republican movement provided was a good funeral.
That is no longer guaranteed. Gerard "Whitey" Bradley, a north Belfast IRA veteran found dead in Carrickfergus last week won't get one. There will be no plot in the Republican graveyard either. Tomorrow Bradley will be cremated privately at Roselawn cemetery in east Belfast and, unless his former comrades break ranks, there will be none of the usual trappings.
Bradley, already a sick man, was hounded through the final months of his existence for having the audacity to tell his story in a book. He was denounced as a "tout" on walls near his home, and taunted with text messages accusing him of cowardice and betrayal.
Richard O'Rawe knows what it feels like to be ostracised by former comrades. His latest book, Afterlives, will arrive in the bookshops on the day of Bradley's funeral. It tells how he struggled to reveal the truth of what happened during the 1981 hunger strike, when, as the prisoners' spokesman in the Maze, he was part of the IRA's H-block leadership. O'Rawe's recollections were first set out in his 2005 book, Blanketmen.
It was an engaging account of the blanket protest and hunger strikes of 1976 to 1981. The problem for the Republican leadership was that it included an explosive allegation – that an offer from Margaret Thatcher to concede some of the prisoners' key demands could have ended the strike after only four of the 10 prisoners had died.
O'Rawe recounted how, on July 5, 1981, he and Brendan "Bik" McFarlane, the IRA's prison OC (officer commanding), discussed the offer in Irish, to avoid being understood by prison officers, and agreed it was enough to settle the dispute. Next day, he claimed, Gerry Adams and the outside leadership over-ruled this. As a result, the offer was not communicated to the other prisoners, and the hunger strike continued with six more deaths.
Fr Denis Faul, one of the prison chaplains, had long argued that the hunger strike was prolonged to allow Owen Carron, a Sinn Féin member who stood as a "proxy political prisoner", to contest and win a Westminster by-election. It is worth looking at the circumstantial evidence and the timeline for what Sinn Féin long dismissed as a priestly conspiracy theory. Before the hunger strikes the IRA campaign was faltering and the Republican leadership opposed the protest because it reckoned that a decisive defeat in the jails would wreck the armed struggle. The 1980 strike did indeed fail when Brendan Hughes, then the prison leader, ended it to avoid deaths. It was clear from the start that the second hunger strike, led by Bobby Sands, had to produce deaths if it was to convince the British government to make concessions. Sinn Féin regarded all parliaments claiming jurisdiction over any part of Ireland as "assemblies whose main tasks are treasonable", and hailed the IRA army council as the legitimate government of the island. Contesting elections was taboo.
When Frank Maguire, the MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, died, an exception was made to allow Sands to stand. The justification was that he would only "borrow" the seat to save his life. Instead, he died on hunger strike on May 5, less than a month after winning the election. That meant another by-election, and legislation was introduced to prevent prisoners standing. At the same time, secret channels of communication were opened with the IRA leadership by Thatcher in an attempt to end the mounting pressure on her government. This ran through MI6 to Brendan Duddy, a Derry businessman.
To increase the pressure, and, Faul suspected, to break the ban on fighting elections, Carron was nominated as a "proxy political prisoner" candidate on a ticket of saving the hunger strikers. The last one to die, Michael Devine, expired on the day Carron was elected, August 20, 1981. A few months later, Sinn Féin confirmed its intention of standing in future elections after hearing Danny Morrison famously ask: "Will anyone here object if, with a ballot paper in one hand and the Armalite in the other, we take power in Ireland?" It was the beginning of the peace process, the moment when Sinn Féin took the first faltering steps on a political path that would result in the Armalite being laid down in return for seats at Stormont. This was not what the hunger strikers had demanded, but it flowed from their deaths.
Adams acknowledged the strategic debt he owed them in his 1985 Bobby Sands Memorial Lecture, when he said: "The hunger strikes, at great cost to our H-block martyrs and their families, smashed criminalisation and led to the success of the electoral strategy, plus revamping the IRA."
The question was whether the prisoners had been kept in the dark about a settlement which, while it might have satisfied them and saved six of their lives, might have meant that Carron wasn't elected.
O'Rawe says he and McFarlane agreed the offer, and McFarlane undertook to convey their decision to Adams. O'Rawe struggled with his conscience after his release from prison. Once he revealed his information, he was demonised; denounced as "the H-block traitor" in graffiti near his west Belfast home. Families of hunger strikers were briefed that he was not to be believed. McFarlane was wheeled out to deny that the conversation had taken place.
Afterlives tells the story of O'Rawe's search for prisoners who could confirm his story. He found two – Gerard Clarke from Ardoyne, who had been in the next cell, and another blanketman who wished to remain anonymous but agreed to speak to some of the hunger strikers' families.
Confirmation came from other sources
After years of appeals, the British government released some redacted minutes of its contacts with the IRA, in which the organisation briefly appeared to accept the offer. At a meeting in Derry, Duddy confirmed that this document had been dictated to him over the phone by his British intelligence contact, and passed to an unnamed IRA volunteer in Derry. Martin McGuinness later confirmed that he had passed the document to Adams.
McFarlane partially recovered his memory of the conversation which "never happened". "I said to Richard, 'This is amazing, this is a huge opportunity and I feel there is potential here to end this'," he said, after being confronted with the evidence from Duddy and Clarke. He continued to deny that anything was agreed. O'Rawe's book reads like a detective story, as he deals with the emotional pressures and pieces the evidence together. Adams has refused to debate the issues with him, issuing the same sort of blanket denials he gave following Hughes's allegations, as broadcast in last week's RTE documentary Voices from the Grave.
The Sinn Féin president was billed to speak in Rory Dolan's pub in New York on Friday about the 1980-81 hunger strikes. It would have been an opportunity to lay these issues to rest, but he hasn't taken it. After news of O'Rawe's new book appeared in Belfast, he withdrew.
While he will miss the hunger strike discussion, Adams is still billed to address a $500-a-plate fundraising banquet. Awkward questions are less likely there.
Doesn’t it seem somewhat strange that Brendan Hughes, Richard O’Rawe, Gerard Bradley, Tony O’Hara, and many other former Irish political prisoners and blanket men are now portrayed as touts and liars by their former “comrades” in the Stormont government? We might do well to listen to their side of the story and form our own opinion rather than depending wholly on the word of someone who denies ever having been a member of the IRA. All volunteers who fought for Irish freedom, regardless of their current political affiliations, deserve to be heard and not ridiculed by a chosen few.