Hunger Strike controversy


Former comrades’ war of words over hunger strike

(Steven McCaffrey, Irish News)

The man who led IRA prisoners inside the Maze jail

during the 1981 hunger strike has dismissed a

controversial new book on the period as fictitious.

Brendan McFarlane speaks to Steven McCaffrey about a

period that still stirs deeply held emotions among


In his book, Blanketmen: An Untold Story of the

H-Block Hunger Strike, Richard O’Rawe fondly re-calls

his former republican comrade Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane.

Describing him as “six feet tall and full of

bonhomie”, a “striking character” and a “great

singer”, the author writes that both men were avid

fans of Gaelic football and that they “whiled away the

time dreaming of the day when the Antrim football team

would grace Croke Park in an all-Ireland final”.

But it seems such close ties inside the Maze prison’s

H-blocks have not survived the book’s publication.

“He [Richard O’Rawe] uses me to give credence to his

argument. It’s ‘Bik and Richard this’, and ‘Richard

and Bik that’. And it’s totally erroneous, totally and

absolutely erroneous,” Mr McFarlane told the Irish


“I was absolutely horrified to read the account that

Richard had laid out and I just could not for one

second understand where he was coming from. I haven’t

a clue as to the motivation behind it.”

Mr McFarlane was the officer commanding (OC) of IRA

prisoners in the Maze during the 1981 hunger strike

when 10 republicans died. Mr O’Rawe was the prisoners’

press officer.

Both were close to the action but they now give very

different accounts of what went on.

Mr O’Rawe said that on July 5, after the first four

prisoners including the now iconic Bobby Sands had

died, Danny Morrison, director of publicity for the

republican movement at the time, visited Mr McFarlane

to brief him on a British offer of a deal.

Mr O’Rawe said his OC returned to the block after his

meeting and passed a ‘comm’ (communication) down to

O’Rawe’s cell detailing the offer.

In Blanketmen, the author writes that the deal seemed

to largely meet the prisoners’ demands for political

status. He claims that he then spoke to Mr McFarlane

from their respective cell windows.

“We spoke in Irish so the screws could not

understand,” Mr O’Rawe told the Irish News.

“I said, ‘Ta go leor ann’ – There’s enough there.

“He said, ‘Aontaim leat, scriobhfaidh me chun taoibh

amiugh agus cuirfidh me fhois orthu’ – I agree with

you, I will write to the outside and let them know.”

But in his book Mr O’Rawe alleges that the IRA

leadership outside the jail did not believe the deal

was enough.

Three days later a fifth hunger striker, Joe

McDonnell, died. Five more men were to starve to death

before the strike ended.

Mr O’Rawe controversially asks if the IRA leadership

sacrificed the last six hunger strikers to fuel the

new groundswell of support buoying their movement.

Prior to the hunger strikes Sinn Féin, in the author’s

words, “barely existed”.

Years of prison protests had failed to generate

popular support but the funerals of the hunger

strikers drew tens of thousands.

At the time of the alleged deal republican candidate

Owen Carron was fighting a by-election in

Fermanagh/South Tyrone to hold on to the Westminster

seat that Bobby Sands had won from his bed in the

prison hospital.

By any measure of history 1981 was a watershed.

The election victories meant that Sinn Féin became a

political force, kickstarting the wider movement’s

gradual shift away from violence.

The worry for the republican leadership is that if the

book’s claims were true, it would necessitate a hugely

embarrassing rewrite of their own political history.

Mr McFarlane rejects the book’s central tenet.

“That any republican should ever conceive in his

wildest imagination that we would put hunger strikers

to death to get somebody elected to a Westminster seat

or anywhere else, I think it is absolutely

disgraceful,” he said.

The 53-year-old described the book as deplorable.

Married with three children, he was brought up in the

Ardoyne area of north Belfast. Unlike Mr O’Rawe, he

did not come from a republican family and at the age

of 16 left Belfast to train as a Catholic priest in a

north Wales seminary.

He returned to Belfast in the summer of 1969 and after

witnessing the violence that ignited the Troubles, he

found it difficult to settle back into his studies.

Within a year he was home to stay.

He was already involved “in a small way” with Belfast

republicans when he left the Divine Word Missionaries

behind and joined the IRA.

Five years later Brendan McFarlane was sentenced to

life imprisonment in connection with a gun and bomb

attack on the Bayardo Bar on Belfast’s Protestant

Shankill Road that killed five people.

His time in prison was marked by protest and escape

attempts. He returned to his religious calling in

1978, when he tried to escape the Maze dressed as a

priest, but was quickly caught.

However, in 1983 he led the mass break-out of

republican prisoners from the top security jail when

38 escaped.

In January 1986 he was recaptured in The Netherlands

along with fellow escapee Gerry Kelly.

Nearly 20 years later Mr McFarlane is sitting in Sinn

Féin’s modern press centre on the Falls Road. Its

gable wall carries the famous mural of Bobby Sands.

During the interview Gerry Kelly, now a prominent Sinn

Féin representative, calls in to the room. Jim Gibney,

the party strategist reputed to have proposed putting

Sands forward for the Fermanagh/South Tyrone seat,

also briefly walks in.

The hunger strike past and the Sinn Féin present are


Mr McFarlane said he has “countless memories” of 1981.

“For [younger people] this is an element of history.

For the families of the hunger strikers and for us who

were at the coalface of it, this was last week. And it

is as sharp and as raw as that,” he said.

He described the bonds forged during the prison

protests as being those of “brother as opposed to


Recalling an encounter with Bobby Sands prior to the

strike, Mr McFarlane said Sands demanded to know if he

“had the list ready”.

Mr McFarlane said he was shocked to find that Sands

wanted to know who was scheduled to follow him to


The first hunger strike at the Maze in 1980 ended

without death amid speculation of a deal. During it

the men starved as a group.

The second hunger strike began with Sands, while

another man was to join each week, cranking up the

pressure. It took 66 days for Sands to perish.

“We had these smuggled crystal [radio] sets and at

night we would fix it up with a wire to the window for

an aerial and we would listen in to the Radio Ulster

news,” Mr McFarlane said.

“On the early morning that he died I had the radio

wired up. I actually heard it on the 2am news.

“I remember distinctly… ‘Bobby Sands, hunger

striker, MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone, died at 1:17am


“And even though we were waiting for it, it still

shocked. I woke up Paul Butler, who is a councillor in

Lisburn now, and told him.

“We rapped down at the heating pipes beside each cell

and passed the word quietly.”

Mr McFarlane said he also had fresh memories of July 5

– the day at the centre of Mr O’Rawe’s claims.

“Danny Morrison and myself had a visit together. He

informed me that that morning the British had opened a

line of communication to the republican movement in

relation to the jail hunger strikes. My eyes widened.

“And he said to me ‘I am instructed to inform you, do

not under any circumstances build up your hopes’.

“Danny then went and briefed the hunger strikers. I

was able to go in and talk to them [and] went back to

the block later that afternoon.

“I went back to the block, wrote out a quick note,

passed it up to Richard, informed him that the British

had opened up a line of communication.

“We were not to spread the word. I told him and I

think I told one other member of camp staff. I told

him again that we need to see what’s going to happen


Asked whether was any information was passed to Mr

O’Rawe on what might have been on offer?

Mr McFarlane replied: “There was no concrete proposals

whatsoever in relation to a deal.

“According to Richard he has a deal done. Richard then

says that he shouted down to me that ‘that looks

good’. ‘I agreed’ and that I would write out to the

army council and say that we would accept the deal.

“That is totally fictitious. That conversation did not


“I did not write to the army council and tell them

that we were accepting [a deal]. I couldn’t have. I

couldn’t have accepted something that didn’t exist.

“He then says that the conversation continued at the

window in Irish to confuse the prison guards so they

wouldn’t hear. But there’s 44 guys on that wing who

have Gaelic.”

“Not only did I not tell him. That conversation didn’t

take place.

“No way did I agree with Richard O’Rawe that a deal

was offered and that we should accept it and that I

would write to the army council and say that ‘that is

a good deal we’re accepting it’.

“And one thousand per cent, the army council did not

write in and say ‘do not accept the deal’.”

Mr McFarlane insisted that “prisoners took the


“I have spoken to Richard on numerous occasions in the

years that I have been released and never on any

occasion did he ever raise any difficulties, problems,

doubts, in relation to the hunger strike period. Never

once broached the subject.”

Mr McFarlane said Sinn Féin had contacted the hunger

striker’s families to “allay any fears” over the book.

Blanketmen asks questions of the republican leaders of

1981 and records Gerry Adams’s central role.

Mr McFarlane raised this point and said: “I think the

vilification of Gerry Adams in this is scandalous,

absolutely scandalous.”

Last night (Thursday) Mr O’Rawe stood over his account

of events and said the communication from Mr McFarlane

did contain details of a deal that they agreed to

accept. He reiterated the question: why would he make

it up?

“The only person who can answer that is Richard

O’Rawe,” Mr McFarlane said.

“But I categorically state that never did I write to

the army council telling them that we were accepting a

deal, because a deal did not exist.”

March 12, 2005


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