Frank Mitchell speaks to author Richard O’Rawe via telephone about his new book, Northern Heist.
Frank: Now, I’ve a book in front of me here and this is worth the read because I haven’t read it all but every time I’ve lifted it to read it I’ve been reading page after page of it because it’s very well written and the author is on the line – it’s Richard O’Rawe. Richard, Good Morning!
Richard: How are you, Frank? It’s good to be back on with you, mate.
Frank: It’s a pleasure having you on, Richard. We’d a bit of of head-to-head the last time you were on because I asked you a few questions about your politics. I’m not as interested in your politics this time round but it’s still relevant, it’s still relevant, because the Northern Heist – now it’s about the robbery of, I think you call it, the ‘National Bank’ but this is about, this is about the Northern Bank – isn’t it? This is the story of what happened with a few little twists of your own in there or is this completely a work of fiction?
Well, it’s absolutely a work of fiction, Frank. It’s actually an amalgamation of several big robberies that took place in and around the time of the Northern Bank – that’s part of it – of the process that I incorporated when I was writing it. But we also had a huge robbery down in the docks where over a million pound in cigarettes was taken and we had the wholesalers robbery on the outskirts of Belfast (I forget the name of it) but they got away – it was a million pounds, over a million pounds, taken there so what I did was I thought this, I actually said to myself: There’s a brain behind this here. There’s somebody, one person – in my view it was one person – planning these things, carrying them out and it seemed to me to be the same modus operandi all the time and I assumed, maybe it’s just me, that it was the same person or the same people doing it and I amalgamated them all and I came up with the story of Northern Heist. But you’re quite right, the Northern Bank robbery was one of the things that I certainly looked at I mean, how could I not given the size of it and the enormity of it?
Frank: And your a man who knows about robbing banks because you went to jail for doing the very thing – not the Northern Bank but you robbed a bank back in the day yourself.
Richard: (laughs) That was forty-two years ago, Frank. That was long before tiger kidnappings was even thought of – yes, but you’re quite right. I robbed a northern bank in 1977, as you point out, and I got eight years imprisonment for it – for the IRA.
Frank: And did you do that, did you do that for political reasons or did you do that for personal gain or did you do it for both?
Richard: No, that was an IRA job, Frank. I never knew where Mallusk was – I hadn’t a clue. I was virtually following orders – we’d go in and rob this bank – and that’s what I did. So I mean it had nothing to do with me I was just told to do it and we were caught and that’s the end of it.
Frank: And how much did you regret that? Because you spent eight years in prison, you’ve written about your time in prison, you’ve written about the hunger strikes – you know, we’ve talked about this on the radio about this before- you’ve also written about Gerry Conlon who was a good friend of yours and you’ve written some well, highly respected, books that people have an opinion on in terms of the way they are structured – other people would be critical, of course, but you’ve got a high profile now as a writer so when you go back to the actual robbery of forty-two years ago – do you regret that experience of life?
Richard: I do, Frank, I absolutely do. Because here’s the – I was only married six months and in those days I was quite selfish – right? I had a family, a young daughter and a wife, and I was away from them for the next six years and they virtually had to fend for themselves so I mean I absolutely regret that. It was awful. In the process I met some fantastic people, some fantastic – I met Bobby Sands, I met Darkie Hughes, Tom McElwee, Joe McDonnell, Kieran Doherty – I met a whole plethora of fantastic people but that does not make up for the fact that I was away from my family for six years and I absolutely regret it, of course.
Frank: And you mention there some of the hunger strikers in that list and you came to prominence and discussion and debate in the book about the blanketmen where you argued against the IRA on the issue of how many of them should have been allowed to die – you believe some of the hunger strikers’ lives could easily have been saved.
Richard: Well, absolutely, Frank. I was the PRO (Public Relations Officer) of the Republican prisoners and on the 4th of July we released a statement, 1981, which the British responded to with an offer and me, myself, as one of the prison leaders, and the prison OC (Officer Commanding) decided to – that there was enough in the offer to honourably end the hunger strike but we were vetoed by a committee on the outside. And I believe that had that offer been accepted, had our writ been carried out, the last six hunger strikers wouldn’t have died and obviously, that’s a very sore and a very bold point for me.
Frank: Do you still argue with the likes of Gerry Adams about this or is this argument, is this debate, this discussion now something that belongs to Richard O’Rawe’s past?
Richard: No, it flashes up every now and then but I mean it’s been debated and been diagnosed and pulled apart and put back together again and you tend to be going over the same old ground but it’s not so much a lame argument at present.
Frank: It’s interesting – the book says: When James ‘Ructions’ O’Hare put together a crack team to rob the National Bank in Belfast December 2004 even he didn’t realise he was about to carry out one of the biggest bank heists in British and Irish history – and then this line: And he’ll be damned if the Provos are getting a slice of it. So, you’re almost suggesting there that the Provos didn’t do the Northern Bank. They’ve never been found guilty of doing it but everyone believes they did do it.
Richard: You’re quite right – everyone does believe they did do it. Frank, neither you nor me know for sure who done the Northern Bank. Now, we can assume that the Provos done it – and if you were looking at it from a realistic point of view you would have to come to the conclusion that no one else was capable of doing it. And you’d also have to keep in mind that the two governments and the Garda Commissioner and the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) all said that the Provisionals, the Provisional IRA, pulled off this job so I mean certainly there is a weight of evidence – maybe not evidence but opinion – certainly leaning towards the IRA having done it but no one’s ever been charged with it. And from a writer’s point of view there’s a certain beauty in that because it lends to the mystique around it and the mystery around it and it would lend itself, obviously, to a book like mine where a creative writer is saying: Maybe there’s an alternative – and therein lies the substance of Northern Heist.
Frank: The substance of Northern Heist is pretty meaty. There’s, as I say, it is well written – in fairness to you, Richard, you seem to have a great skill with the English language – and it flows and whenever you’re reading a thriller or whatever you like it to flow. Is it easier for us to read because we know every nook and cranny of this, we know every street you refer to – I know you’ve some fictional villages in it and so on and so forth but they sound like the places that the victims, and I emphasis the victims of the Northern Bank robbery, came from – those people who would have been held hostage – so is there a little bit of poetic licence in terms of renaming places? Are you doing that on purpose?
Yes, I am, Frank. I didn’t want it to be, I didn’t want it to be – because it’s a fictional piece I didn’t want it to be so precise and I also wanted the readers to understand how absolutely horrible it was for the victims – because there’s victims in tiger kidnappings – there are families always held hostage and because usually they’re not physically hurt or abused – you then have the mental scars after it and I mention that in the book as well. So I wanted the reader to – from a writer’s point of view you have to be – every character in the book has to be a part, not a part of you, but you certainly have to be a part of them because you’re constructing their personalities so you’re writing a book from their perspective and writing it from a victim’s perspective was very important to me and I think, I hope, I’ve done that in the book and covered it very comprehensively.
Frank: And how is it that you go from being, as you say about yourself, so stupid that you didn’t know where Mallusk was as a young fella to being such a good writer? Where did you learn the skill?
Richard: That’s a good question, Frank. I was always pretty good at writing, even at school, but I think the genesis of my career as a writer, if you want to call it that, started in the H-Blocks, started in H6, where Bobby Sands began what could only be termed as a propaganda factory where eight or nine of us guys – we were in the special wing of leaders, etc – Bobby started a campaign of propaganda whereby we were writing letters to everyone around the world of influence – universities, colleges, unions, etc in the US and places like that – and we were literally churning out letters and I mean, you churned out the same message all the time and you were always looking for a different way to write it just to break up the boredom so I think that that was the actual genesis of me being a writer.
Frank: Well, you’ve obviously now been able to turn it to profit and there’s talk about a film made of this. You will have your critics, Richard. There’ll be people shouting at the radio: Number One: I shouldn’t even be talking to you. Number Two: You shouldn’t be benefiting from having robbed a bank in the past yourself or having been in prison and now being a successful writer. It’s an argument that doesn’t wash, of course, with many, many, many people but do you understand those who might be shouting at the radio?
Richard: Well, people always shout at radios, Frank, and well you know it. You probably know it better than anyone however – why shouldn’t I be a writer? Why shouldn’t anyone be a writer? What’s to stop them? Who’s to say who’s to write and who isn’t going to write? That’s a form of censorship. The sub-text of that there is that any writer that a certain body of people should say who’s gonna write and who isn’t gonna write and that doesn’t wash. It’s censorship. And I mean, it shouldn’t be tolerated and certainly, certainly, from my point of view, I wouldn’t tolerate it, nobody’s gonna tell me that I shouldn’t write or what I should write. I am a free writer, I write what I think and I write what my conscience tells me and nobody’ll ever tell me different.
Frank: Is it going to be made into a film?
Richard: Well, I don’t know, Frank. There’s an interest there. There are three film companies at the minute looking at it – and you don’t really know whether it will or not – you know? It would be nice, wouldn’t it?
Frank: Well, it wold make, in fairness, it would make a great film, you know,…
Richard: …thank you so much…
Frank: …there’s no question about it – like you’d definitely sit down and watch that. Have you any idea who would play Ructions O’Hare?
Richard: Well, it must be Johnny Depp, must’n it? (both laugh)
Frank: I think the plan is already underway here. Richard, it is Northern Heist. It is courtesy of Merrion Press and people can’t judge it until they read it. I see one of our commentators who regularly appears on this programme says: Unquestionably a serious and superior work of fiction. O’Rawe’s book is a stunner. – that was written in a review by Malachi O’Doherty. Richard, thanks for coming on and we’ll allow the reader to judge it.
Richard: It’s a pleasure me talking to you, my friend, Lovely.
Frank: Thank you, Richard. Thank you, indeed.
Richard: Thanks, Frank. Bye-bye.
Frank: Thank you. Thank you. (ends)