17 May 2006

When investigative documentary ignores the facts

Daily Ireland

Laurence McKeown

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usLast week I watched the first part of the RTÉ documentary about the 1981 hunger strike. I thought it very well made. It flowed easily – the result of careful editing. There were various voices heard, republican, British, unionist, prison service but all came together in a seamless hour-long programme. I was eager to see the second part of the series.
Then last Sunday I got a call from a friend who works in the media to tell me s/he had just discovered that RTÉ had instructed the makers of the programme, DoubleBand Films, to re-edit the second programme. The reason given was that the first programme was too ‘pro-republican’. There had been negative feedback from certain quarters. My friend wondered if I’d heard anything along those lines as they knew I had given a lengthy interview to DoubleBand for the making of the programme. I hadn’t heard anything but on Monday morning I contacted Daily Ireland and repeated what I had heard. Daily Ireland got on to RTÉ. A spokesperson there admitted there had been some editing following the screening of the first part but that that was customary practice. I inquired of others in the business if it would be normal for additional editing to take place after a programme had already been submitted to a broadcasting company and especially after one part of a two-part documentary has just been screened. They found it highly unlikely given the number of technical and editorial processes that it would have to go through.
The reporter from Daily Ireland then put in a call to DoubleBand Films. The producers were unavailable but he was promised a call from them at three o’clock. The call never came. I myself put in a call to the same producer and left a message to call me. Again no response – which I thought strange as I believe it was myself and Mike Ritchie, Director of Coiste na nIarchimí, who first spoke to the producers (at their request) when setting out on their research and advising them as to who it might be good to speak to.
I don’t know if DoubleBand Films re-edited the second part of their documentary in response to pressure from RTÉ. What I do know is that the second part was qualitatively different from the first. It was incoherent and repetitive, stuck in a groove around the claim by Richard O’Rawe that a deal was on offer at one point and that the IRA Army Council rejected it. Various other voices came into the programme which took us off periodically on different tangents only to return again to the same allegation. If you hadn’t listened closely you wouldn’t have heard Fr Oliver Crilly, one of the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace delegation, say that he would, “never trust the British again”. Unfortunately we didn’t get to hear the rest of what he said but it was clear that he and the delegation felt that they had been exploited by the government. Neither did we get to hear much more about the experience of the hunger strike post July, comments confined to those who were observers or back again to the O’Rawe claim. By the end of the programme you were left with a sense of confusion and a bad taste in your mouth, yet there has never been that sense of the hunger strike before now, certainly not amongst those involved in it.
When Nor Meekly Serve My Time, an account of the blanket protest and hunger strikes, was written by the prisoners ten years after the hunger strike there was not a mention of Richard’s claim yet the camp was buzzing with recollections of that period. During the numerous events that marked the 20th anniversary in 2001 there was again never a whimper of such allegations. Then in 2005 Richard made them.
Cynics will say that he only made the allegations to promote his book about the blanket protest, a book that I hear is an interesting read in terms of the everyday life of the wing, but which was never going to come to any prominence among the general public. What gave it a life was his claim about a supposed deal being rejected by the IRA a claim eagerly taken up by the Sunday Times and promoted as fact.
Let’s assume for the moment that the claim genuinely originated with Richard and despite the abundance of evidence that refutes his allegation (from republican, British and church sources) let’s just assume that it’s true - that the British government offered a deal to us that was both definite and definitive.
This would have heralded a major shift in their thinking. That shift would not have come about as the result of some humanitarian gesture on their part but based on the collective wisdom of their extensive security and intelligence services and diplomatic corps worldwide advising them that to prolong the hunger strike situation was not in the long-term interests of the government.
So, make concessions. Do whatever is needed. Go as far as possible without conceding the full demands. Cloak the initiative in terms of change in prison regime for all prisoners (as was the government line taken at the end of the hunger strike). Drop the story to a few well-placed journalists beforehand that a deal is imminent – to fire up expectation among the prisoners, their families and the Movement – then tell the IRA and the prisoners (not negotiate with them) what’s on offer.
They can take it or leave it but at 6pm that evening the British Secretary of State would go on television to announce the government’s position. The Dublin government would have rowed in behind it, so too the Catholic Church and the SDLP.
We would have been left in a totally untenable situation where to continue the hunger strike in light of the concessions offered would have appeared to be extreme.
So what happened? The British we are told approached the IRA’s Army Council who told them to take themselves off and the Brits immediately did that.
The government which decimated entire mining communities in north England and Wales, that sank the Belgrano with horrific loss of life when it posed no threat, that destroyed the public services, that crushed the trade unions and much more, suddenly lost their bottle when confronted by the Army Council. They ignored the advice of their intelligence and diplomatic corps and allowed the hunger strike to drift on for another three months and six more deaths.
The British never had any intention of proposing a deal that they would follow through on.
What we had was smoke and mirrors. Bernard Ingham, Maggie Thatcher’s secretary, confirmed on the programme there was never any consideration of concessions and as Danny Morrison made clear, had the NIO something like that to hang on the republican movement and Gerry Adams they would have used it a long time ago.
And yet that claim now sits as a cloud over this year’s 25th commemoration, eagerly taken up by those who wish to believe republicans are duplicitous, sinister, evil. It fits with the view they are comfortable with.
Much worse though, is that six families now have the additional pain to bear of that needling thought in the back of there heads – what if?
It’s ironic when we recall that at one point in 1981 the pressure shifted from the British government to concede our demands onto our families and that in this, the 25th anniversary year, the focus has again been shifted to some degree from the actions of that government onto those who were doing all in their power to assist us, promote our cause and end our nightmare.
Leaving my daughters off at the Bunscoil in Newry on Wednesday morning the mother of another child summed it up: “Isn’t it a shame it’s always your own who are the worst.”

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