Hunger-striker's daughter denounces Sinn Féin
Suzanne Breen - Sunday World – 16 January 2012
The daughter of a H-Block hunger-striker has slammed the Sinn Féin leadership claiming they let her father "die for nothing".
Louise Devine says she's "sickened" that the party top brass allegedly rejected a secret British offer which could have saved the last six hunger-strikers' lives – including her father's.
The claim that a substantial British proposal was on the table – first made by ex-Blanketman Richard O'Rawe – was confirmed by recently released British state papers.
Louise Devine is now demanding an urgent meeting with Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and other key republicans who ran the hunger-strike from the outside.
"I want answers. I'm asking them to meet me face-to-face. They owe me that at the very least," she told the Sunday World.
"I was just five-years-old when I watched my daddy die in agony in a H-Block slum.
"I sat on his bed and he couldn't even see me and my brother because he was blind. I remember the tears running down his face as we left him for the last time."
The Devines are the first family of a dead hunger-striker to denounce the Sinn Féin leadership following recent revelations.
"There's now a mountain of evidence backing Richard O'Rawe's claim that the British made an offer effectively granting four of the prisoners' five demands and that this offer was accepted by the IRA's prison leadership but rejected by the outside leadership," Louise says.
"Had the British proposal been accepted, my father would be alive today. Instead he spent 60 agonising days as his body wasted away on hunger-strike.
"He died for nothing because the British were already willing to meet nearly all the prisoners' demands."
Sinn Féin strongly denies allegations an offer existed which could have saved the men's lives and it unnecessarily prolonged the hunger-strike for electoral gain.
But Louise (35) says she's "beyond anger" at those republicans who reportedly rejected the offer: "How do they live with themselves?
"They knew the suffering the hunger-strikers endured and the filth and squalor in which they lived. They're cold, heartless men."
Mickey Devine, a 27-year-old father of two – know as 'Red Mickey' because of his bright red hair and left-wing politics – was the last of the 10 hunger-strikers to die.
Louise claims Sinn Féin didn't inform her father, nor the INLA of which he was a member, of the secret British offer. "Had daddy known, he would have ended his hunger-strike.
"He was a young man with two children he adored and less than two years left to serve in jail. He'd everything to live for."
Mother-of-five Louise stresses she's "very proud" of her father and his sacrifice: "He died for his comrades. But the knowledge that he didn't need to is destroying me."
She's calling for an independent public inquiry into the hunger-strike: "Sinn Féin demands inquiries into everything that suits them. Let's see if they agree to this."
Louise was just five months' old when her father was arrested for arms' possession in 1977. "As a baby, the prison officers searched my nappy on visits to Long Kesh.
"When I was older, I hated visiting the jail. The screws were very aggressive to Blanketmen's children." Louise's parents' marriage broke up when her father was in prison but she and her brother continued seeing him.
"When he was on the dirty protest, I was afraid of him at first," she admits. "Here was this skinny, smelly man with a beard wearing an old army blanket – and people told me he was my daddy.
"I cried and threw a tantrum, refusing to sit on his knee during one visit, and he looked so sad."
But Louise says her father did everything possible to reach out to her and her brother, Michael og: "He couldn't buy us presents in jail so he made us hankies. They were all he could give us."
She breaks down in tears as she shows the Sunday World one hankie. On it, her father has drawn Mickey Mouse, Tom and Jerry, the Seven Dwarfs and other cartoon characters. "To Louise and Michael from Daddy," Mickey Devine has lovingly written.
Another hankie shows her father and his comrades with faces like monkeys. "Despite everything he was suffering, he was trying to make his kids laugh. He loved us that much," Louise says.
She remembers, in graphic detail, visiting her dying father in the prison hospital. She was only five-years-old and her brother was eight.
"Daddy was lying in bed, covered in bed sores, and in terrible pain. I climbed onto the bed to be near him and my Aunt Margaret said, 'Get down, you'll hurt him.'
"But daddy said in this wee weak voice you could hardly hear, 'She's all right, let her be.' He was just delighted I wasn't scared of him anymore. He held me close and I was so happy."
But Louise is riddled with guilt too: "I remember somebody feeling sorry for me and giving me a bag of cheese and onion crisps when I was on the bus going to the jail.
"I visited daddy stinking of those crisps. How selfish that was of me when he was starving.
"The prison authorities kept a bowl of fruit by his bed. I longed for the big red shiny apple. I knew not to take it but I feel guilty for even wanting it."
Her last visit to her dying father was heart-breaking: "Daddy's organs were collapsing. There was a terrible smell of his rotting flesh as his body broke down.
"He was blind so he couldn't see me or my brother. We sat beside him and he was told, 'Michael is on your left and Louise is on your right'. He held our hands and then he reached up and felt the shape of our faces.
"I remember his cold, skinny hand on my flesh. He mumbled words to us which I couldn't understand. He was drifting in and out of consciousness. His eyes were half open. As we left, tears streamed down his face.
"Michael and I should have been allowed to stay with him to the end. At his wake, I wouldn't leave his coffin."
The children were woken at 8am on August 20 1981 to be told that their father was dead. They were terrified as the INLA fired shots over his coffin. At the graveside, they threw red roses on his coffin.
The rest of Louise's childhood was "hell", she says: "Michael and I were bullied at school. 'Your daddy rubbed shit on his cell wall', 'Your da starved himself to death', other kids shouted.
"We'd come home crying and not go back to school for a week." On her birthday, first communion and Christmas, she'd envy other children "with their intact families and perfect lives".
Mickey Devine's own life – even before prison – was tragic. When he was 11, his father died of leukaemia. A few years later, he came home to find his mother dead from a massive brain tumour.
"Daddy had no family," says Louise. "I've five children. My wee boy Caolan is the image of his grandfather with his red hair and sense of humour. I just want daddy here now to be part of my family. But we've been robbed of him and he's been robbed of us."
The late Billy Thompkins was a very active member of Friends of Irish Freedom in Boston for many years. Billy met and later married Margaret, Mickey Devine’s sister, when she came here to Boston several years ago with a group from Derry to participate in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. They were both active in the Irish American community and good friends of mine. Margaret, better known as Mags, was never one to hide her feelings and often said that she believed there was much more to the Hunger Strikes of 1981 than that which “met the eye of the public”. Her opinion was shared by the family of Mickey's fellow hunger striker, Patsy O'Hara and others. However, anybody who reads stories such as this from family members and books like “Blanketmen” are left to form their own opinion based on any available information and because of the fact that there are two sides to every story and the whole unvarnished truth will, in all probability, never be known.
Jack Meehan, Past National President
Ancient Order of Hibernians in America