February 2005 the airwaves and print columns were
dominated by the gangland-style murder of Robert
McCartney. Two months into Sinn Fein's centenary
celebrations, party spokespersons had hoped to be
questioned about "the legacy of one-hundred
years of resistance". Instead they riggled
like eels under a sustained media inquisition and
were haunted by the ubiquitous image of the McCartney
sisters, a group of articulate young women whose
decency and courage could not be dismissed as hooey
or yet another securocrat plot to undermine the
Later that same February, UTV commissioned a report
on a controversial new book written by Richard O'Rawe.
Although few would have guessed it at the time,
Blanketmen was about to radically alter the
conventional republican perception of the 1981 hunger
Sinn Fein strategists had earmarked the centenary
celebrations and the 25th anniversary of the hunger
strike as spring boards for the party's continued
growth in the run-up to the next southern general
election. However, the centenary celebrations were
overshadowed by a murder reminiscent from a scene
out of The Sopranos. Then Blanketmen
reeled off the printing presses and the Adams-McGuinness
leadership's role in the 1981 hunger strike was
thoroughly re-evaluated as a result of the author's
startling allegation. O'Rawe contends that five
days before the death of Joe McDonnell, the IRA
prison leadership had accepted a British offer to
end the hunger strike. This offer was subsequently
rejected by the IRA Army Council. Consequently,
six hunger strikers needlesssly died to secure newly-acquired
electoral gains and thus nurturing an incremental
shift towards electoral politics. This alternative
narrative was not part of the Sinn Fein script.
Predictably, the Provisionals lost no time in slandering
O'Rawe and contemptuously dismissing his claims.
An acrimonious public debate ensued. But amid interpretation
and counter-interpretation, claim and counter-claim,
where lies the truth in the Blanketmen controversy?
An examination of the Provisional's contradictory
responses to O'Rawe's account provides essential
clues. In February 2005 UTV's Ferghal McKinney asked
Bik McFarlane, the O/C of IRA prisoners during the
hunger strike, about the existence of a British
proposal immediately prior to Joe McDonnell's death.
McFarlane replied there was no offer ''whatsoever.''
Some Provisional elements have stuck rigidly to
this line. For example, as late as 12 May 2006,
Jim Gibney wrote in the Irish News: "Joe
McDonnell died on July 8. The British did not offer
an agreement before he died.''
Gibney persevered with this line, ostensibly indifferent
to the fact that McFarlane had since amended his
initial comments by stating there was ''no concrete
proposals'' in relation to a deal. The shift from
no proposal ''whatsoever'' to ''no concrete proposal''
was significant. Jim Gibney's version also contradicted
Danny Morrison's earlier May 5 contribution to RTE's
Morning Ireland, in which he reluctantly
conceded that a British offer had been made prior
to Joe McDonnell's death. Throughout, the Provisional's
position has been fluid and inconsistent. Their
interpretation of the facts varies with each interviewee.
Jim Gibney also claimed that: "O'Rawe stands
alone in this, awkwardly close to those who stood
with Thatcher 25 years ago this year." This
is a tad rich, coming as it does from a member of
a party that has agreed to administer British rule
for the forseeable future. However, far from standing
alone, O'Rawe's account has been affirmed by Hugh
Logue, who worked with the Irish Commission during
the prison protest and by Denis Bradley, the former
British government-provisional leadership intermediary.
Furthermore, in the Irish News, Anthony McIntyre
stated that a republican prisoner on O'Rawe's wing
provided him with independent confimation of the
existence of the British offer; while Brendan Hughes,
prison O/C during the first hunger strike, disclosed
that O'Rawe had previously discussed his concerns
While Provisional spokespersons exhibit contradictory
accounts, O'Rawe's version has been solid, thoroughly
scrutinised and verified by numerous independent
sources. Unfortunately, O'Rawe may ultimately have
to wait until the 30-year embargo on British state
papers is lifted before he receives documentary
verification and before Provisional mendacity is
The Provisionals, having lost the public debate,
decided to steer clear of the issue. It was a classic
case of when truth stands in your way it's time
to change direction. In place of informed dialogue,
a concerted campaign of slander, innuendo, and wrath
sought to silence O'Rawe. When this failed the author
was subject to intimidation. A gang of thugs painted
disparaging graffiti on the walls close to his home.
The viciousness of the vitriol directed against
this former blanketman has been dispicable. While
the cowradice of the ceasefire soldiers, brandishing
paint brushes to harass and intimidate, is equally
"If all others accepted the lie which the Party
imposed - if all records told the same tale - then
the lie passed into history and became truth."
The words of George Orwell in his masterpiece 1984.
Richard O'Rawe has endeavoured to ensure that one
lie does not pass into history and become transformed
into truth. And for this we should be thankful.