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Interview: April 8, 2021

NORTHERN HEIST is a first novel by Richard O’Rawe, who as an IRA recruit robbed a Northern Bank branch in Mallusk outside of Belfast in 1977. Captured immediately afterward, he was sentenced to eight years at Long Kesh/Maze prison. While there, O’Rawe became the Public Relations officer for the prisoners who were participating in what would become their world-famous hunger strike, in which 10 of the striking prisoners ultimately died. 

In this interview, O’Rawe talks to Michael Barson, Senior Publicity Executive at Melville House, about his decision to become an author and write a novel about a Belfast bank robbery. According to the Wall Street Journal, the book’s “deeds and details seem as real as a smashed kneecap, while its stopwatch tension, heightened by present-tense voice, is reminiscent of such classic caper films as Rififi and The Asphalt Jungle."

Question: How exactly did you earn that prison sentence in 1977? And once you served it, did you remain in some capacity with the IRA?

Richard O’Rawe: A friend and I were assigned to pull off an old-fashioned bank robbery --- walk into the Northern Bank, hold up the staff and empty the tills. The whole thing was over in two minutes. We lifted £11,000 but were apprehended just a few hours later. So I was sentenced to eight years in Maze prison.

After serving six years, I was released from Maze in 1983. I then worked as a P.R.O. for Sinn Fein at a leadership level, which was very intense.

Then, in 1985, my beautiful wife, Bernadette --- who had stuck by me for the six years I was incarcerated --- gave me an ultimatum: your future lies with either your daughter, Berni, and me, or it lies with the Republican Movement --- but you can't have it both ways anymore. It was an offer I couldn't refuse, so I chose my family over the RM.

Q: At what juncture did you decide that you wanted to become an author? And what motivated that decision?

RO: After leaving the Republican Movement behind, I went into several business ventures; some worked out, others didn’t.

But all the while I had been distraught about the historical distortion that Gerry Adams and those around him were putting out in relation to the 1981 hunger strike. It was putting me around the bend, to be frank. I felt as if Adams and Company were using those brave men's sacrifice to promote their own political agendas, which I found both contemptible and dishonorable.

So, after giving testimony to the Boston College project, I decided I wasn't going to wait until I died before telling the true story of what happened in the early weeks of 1981. And so I wrote BLANKETMEN, which was published in 2005.

Q: I understand that book was rather controversial when published.

RO: That book made me persona non grata in Republican circles overnight. I was fortified with the conviction that I was right, and that what I had done was the right thing to do. After BLANKETMEN, I wrote AFTERLIVES in 2011. AFTERLIVES was a demolition of those Republicans who had opposed me in the media vis-à-vis BLANKETMEN.

Q: You went in a different direction for your third nonfiction book, which was an orthodox biography rather than an account of your own experiences.

RO: Yes, in 2017 I fulfilled a promise to my dear deceased friend Gerry Conlon, of the Guildford Four, and wrote IN THE NAME OF THE SON, a biography of Gerry after he was released from the Old Bailey in 1989. You will recall that Gerry’s time in prison had been the basis for the acclaimed Jim Sheridan film, In the Name of the Father, starring Daniel Day-Lewis.

I'm very proud of the Conlon book. It was widely praised in the media. (By the way, Johnny Depp wrote the most fabulous foreword for it; Johnny and Gerry were great friends.)

Q: So how did the notion of writing a novel about a Belfast bank robbery come to you?

RO: I was intrigued by the Northern Bank robbery in Belfast, in December 2004, when £26,000,500 was taken out of its vaults. It may not be politic to say this, but at the time the job struck me, in terms of its professionalism, as “a work of art.” Such was the ingenuity behind the robbery that I believed the only people in Ireland capable of pulling off a job like this was the IRA. Of course, that evaluation has to be tempered by the reality that innocent people were traumatized and victimized during this robbery. Meanwhile, the security forces on both sides of the Irish border agreed with my assessment.

So how did I go from believing the IRA had carried out the robbery to opening up the prospect that an individual like “Ructions” O’Hare could have put it together? One evening in early January 2005, I happened to be sitting in a bar in Belfast with my daughter, Berni, and the thought struck me: What if the IRA didn’t do it? We discussed a scenario whereby an ordinary decent criminal, a mastermind, could have put together a special team to pull off the job --- and within an hour, the protagonist for my book, James “Ructions” O’Hare, had drawn breath.

Q: Since completing your first novel, what have your creative endeavors involved?

RO: Last year, I collaborated with local playwright Martin Lynch, and we put together the stage play of the same name. It was the first show canceled in Belfast's Lyric Theater due to COVID-19, but we expect it to be back later this year. It's an incredible play about a man who Jim Sheridan said lived 10 lives.

I loved writing NORTHERN HEIST--- and I especially loved writing about “Ructions.” People in Ireland who read it tortured me with the same question: “Who is Ructions, Ricky?” He really made quite an impression. And so next up will be the sequel, GEORING’S GOLD.