Former blanketman Richard O'Rawe says SDLP opposition to armed struggle was correct
A FORMER IRA prisoner who has agreed to be part of the SDLP's New Ireland Commission has said the party's historical opposition to violence has been vindicated by the north's continued place in the United Kingdom.
West Belfast-based author Richard O'Rawe said it was difficult to disagree with the SDLP's analysis retrospectively because "armed struggle didn't work".
The 67-year-old's 2005 book Blanketmen led to schism in the republican movement over its claim the IRA leadership overruled a deal to end the 1981 hunger strike that prisoners had agreed to because it was politically advantageous.
The book saw its author ostracised by mainstream republicans, including many of Mr O'Rawe's former friends and comrades.
Now a successful writer with a number of factual and fictional books under his belt, the self-styled "independent republican", who cut ties with Sinn Féin in 1985, has accepted an invitation to sit on the experts and reference panel of the SDLP's New Ireland Commission.
The former prisoner says he agreed to join the project because it was a "breath of fresh air" and represented a plurality of opinion.
"When I was first approached and heard the names of those involved, it was like woah, this is something very different that I haven’t seen before," he told The Irish News..
"I don't get involved in political parties and I'm very much my own man but this initiative appealed to me because there was no prearranged agenda and no predetermined outcome."
Mr O'Rawe will join more than two dozen community activists, academics, business people and politicians in exploring the priorities for potential constitutional change.
He will bring "some left-leaning republican analysis" to the deliberations but insists there'll be "no dogma".
Mr O'Rawe believes the constitutional situation is "fluid" and that a border poll is likely over the next decade or so. He does not advocate a vote on unity in the short-term.
"I'm not sure nationalists could win a referendum now so we need to prepare and map out what sort of unitary state will emerge if support is there," he said.
"We need to know about the big issues - the economy, health, the environment. I agree with unionists when they say about the potential to lose the National Health Service in a united Ireland. I'd love to see NHS being part of 32-county Ireland but we need to answer questions about funding beforehand."
Asked if republicans would disapprove of his association with the SDLP, the author said he hoped any criticism would be constructive.
In relation to linking up with a party that was historically critical of the IRA, Mr O'Rawe said he believed the "SDLP were right and demonstrably so".
"I was a committed IRA volunteer. I did the guts of four years on the blanket in the H-Blocks - that’s a very committed republican - yet I’ve been convinced for quite a while that armed struggle is regressive," he said
"Armed struggle as a tactic didn't work. You look around, we’re still in the UK. It didn’t achieve its main aim, so it's difficult to disagree with what John Hume and Seamus Mallon were saying at the time."