Richard O’Rawe – Blanketman

The Blanket

A Blanketman Still Fighting To Be Heard

Anthony McIntyre • 4 March 2005

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“This time last week, the name Richard O’Rawe meant little to most people in Ireland…

Less than a week after hitting the headlines via one of the main Sunday newspapers, he probably feels the gravity in his world has gone down the plughole. Throughout republican heartlands the central contention in his book Blanketmen is being discussed and debated, frequently in heated manner. It is talked about in bars, living rooms and taxis. Interest in the broadcast and print media has not waned. Opponents have reviled him and friends have worried for his safety…”

O’Rawe, for a time, was the PRO for the hundreds of republican prisoners who waged the five year blanket protest in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh a quarter of a century ago. His role placed him at the heart of the prison republican command structure at one of the most significant historical moments in the evolution of Provisional republicanism. In the choppy, turbulent seas of the H-Block hunger strike, the author of Blanketmen was able to view events as they happened from a crow’s nest.

If O’Rawe imagined that his book would be received in a spirit of calm reflection, it was barely off the printing press before he received the rudest of awakenings on BBC Radio Ulster’s popular Talkback programme last Monday. His character and perspective was harangued from the outset by Sinn Fein’s undercover publicity director, Danny Morrison. The leader of republican prisoners during the 1981 hunger strike, Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane, vigorously disputed O’Rawe’s conclusions. Few punches were pulled, either by O’Rawe or his detractors, as charge and counter-charge electrified the exchange.

Listening to a nineteen-year-old woman last evening, born half a decade after the hunger strikes, she described the shock to her system – ‘our whole history has been ruined.’ Like most of us she was comfortable with the standard Sinn Fein narrative of the era in which the British state, led by Malevolent Margaret, wanted not only to defeat the protest but to annihilate the protesting prisoners along the way. Now someone who was right at the coalface of events has flagged up some blemishes in our polished narrative and invited us to look again.

To the nineteen year old I said, ‘I don’t know, but what if it is true?’ She parried by asking if I shared O’Rawe’s contention that the leadership of the prisoners had accepted an offer from the British state which would have ended the hunger strike and prevented the deaths of six hunger strikers, but were overruled by the IRA leadership. I explained that while O’Rawe could be mistaken in his account, possibly in the mists of time confusing one strand of negotiations with another, one communication from Gerry Adams with something else, he was certainly not making it up. A consistent response from people on reading the book is that its author sounds very honest and does nothing to portray himself in a favourable soft focus.

There was no possible reason that I could think of that would have prompted Richard O’Rawe to craft a tale that would bring him widespread opprobrium. He lives in West Belfast, is aware of the levels of intimidation and ostracism that kick in against those questioning the Sinn Fein metanarrative. To invite archaeological excavation of the site where many forged their political reputations and became figures in the international spotlight is an enterprise laden with trip wires. The powerful do not like being probed. To challenge the certainties of those with no material stake in the issue either way, but whose view of events is settled, is equally fraught with difficulty. The comfort of certainty is a sleeping giant that one prods safely only from a great distance.

If the debate that O’Rawe has opened up is to develop further, then both he and Brendan McFarlane will emerge as crucial participants. While many people are prepared to accept O’Rawe’s account solely on the basis that Danny Morrison has disputed it, this is more a reflection on how Morrison is perceived as a Sinn Fein front man – the party’s reputation for honesty is on a par with Ian Paisley’s reputation as a Catholic – than it is a recommendation for Blanketmen. As a critic of the book McFarlane will carry much more weight. Like O’Rawe he was at the nerve centre. Unlike many of his colleagues who would seek to destroy O’Rawe, he has no history of spinning and lying. Unfortunately, McFarlane – no intellectual light weight or coward – has handicapped his case by failing to defend it exclusively on its own merits and has instead launched into an attack on O’Rawe, which seeks to place him in the midst of the current critical discourse linking the Provisional movement to criminality. Such an approach leaves Brendan McFarlane to sound as if he is parroting a party line. It also clouds the clarity that his own remarkable insights can bring to bear on the issue at dispute.

In opting to make available to the public his account, Richard O’Rawe has displayed tremendous courage. Some of his shrillest hecklers have never once shown the slightest inclination to critically comment on or challenge the dominant narrative within their own community. There is not much courage required to lob thought-bombs over the wall at the ‘other side.’ Having them explode at our own feet and then stand resolutely in the debris explaining the reason for detonating blasts of alternative thinking is the acid test for any real writer. O’Rawe has taken two necessary steps preached but not practiced by Danny Morrison. He has moved away from the party line in order to write searchingly; and he has refused to allow others to be the author of his history.

How well Blanketmen withstands the challenges it continues to meet remains to be seen. But the idea that the only books the republican constituency should read are ‘true’ accounts of the lives of Sinn Fein leaders outside the IRA is one that is being subverted as the culture of fear is being eroded. It has often been said that people are more afraid of being isolated than of being wrong. Richard O’Rawe has braved the isolation. Others can conclude for themselves, once they have finished reading his book, if he is wrong.

At the heel of the hunt O’Rawe approaches his readership as a former republican prisoner who physically and at great cost took part in one the most arduous resistance struggles waged in European penal history. One of his critics has elsewhere told us that the British agent Freddie Scappaticci was a victim of a securocrat plot. Let those who read Blanketmen decide who really should ‘hang their head in shame’.

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