Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

Maze Prison protest set off one of the worst crises in Troubles

Hunger striker Bobby Sands
Hunger striker Bobby Sands' coffin, flanked by an IRA colour party, leaving his mother's home in Twinbrook.
A young boy plays against a wall in North Belfast on the eve of the 1994 IRA ceasefire. Picture by Crispin Rodwell

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's secret attempts to end the IRA hunger strikes are revealed in official documents made public for the first time today.

In public, she took an unbending stand, insisting she would not bow to the demands of republican prisoners -- held in the Northern Ireland's Maze Prison -- for so-called "special status".

However, files released by the National Archives in Kew, west London, under the 30-year rule, show how her government sent messages to the IRA leadership through a secret intermediary promising concessions if the hunger strikes were called off.

The hunger strikes of 1981 triggered one of the worst crises of the Troubles, galvanising support for the republicans and turning Mrs Thatcher into a hate figure for much of Northern Ireland's nationalist community.

By the beginning of July, the pressure on the prime minister was intense.

Four hunger strikers had died, and before his death Bobby Sands (27) had been elected as an MP in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election.

Mrs Thatcher authorised a message to be sent setting out the concessions her government would make if the strikes ended.

The go-between who relayed the message to the leadership of the Provisional IRA is identified only by the codename 'Soon'.

He has, however, been named previously as Brendan Duddy, a Derry businessman who for more than 20 years acted as a secret intermediary between the government and the IRA through his contacts with MI6 officer Michael Oatley.

The files include a log of a series of frantic telephone calls between Soon and his MI6 contact in the days leading up to the government's offer. In one call Soon explained the IRA's demands.

"Immediately following the ending of the hunger strike, concessions would be required on clothes, parcels and visits. This, he said, would provide the Provisionals "with a face-saving way out", the log noted.

Soon used his contacts to arrange for the leading republican Danny Morrison to visit the prisoners in the Maze to explain what was happening -- without referring to the secret back channel.

The negotiations -- which also involved Martin McGuinness -- were clearly fraught. At one point the IRA men told Soon the British were being "insincere". Soon retorted that "unless that belief was totally dispelled, he was going on holiday".

The log noted: "The strength of his reply had, he said, won the day."

In the final call, timed at 1am on July 6, Soon spelt out the precise choreography that would be necessary to bring the strike to an end. "When HMG produces such a draft proposal it is essential that a copy be in the Provisionals' hands before it is made public," Soon told MI6.

"If it were published without prior sight and agreement they would have to disapprove it."

He added the situation would be "irreparably damaged" if another hunger striker died and urged the government to "act with the utmost haste".

In London, ministers and officials prepared their response, setting out the concessions the government was to offer.

They included allowing the prisoners to wear their own clothes, rather than prison uniform, and to receive normal visits, parcels and letters as well as "further developments" on prison work and remission.

Mrs Thatcher clearly took a close interest in the process. The draft message in the files includes a series of detailed amendments, apparently in her handwriting.

The message ended: "If the reply we receive is unsatisfactory and there is subsequently any public reference to this exchange we shall deny that it took place. Silence will be taken as an unsatisfactory reply."

Despite the careful build-up and the apparent concession to the key IRA demands, the approach was rebuffed. The following day, a fifth hunger striker, Joe McDonnell, died.

Nevertheless, the British government then made a second attempt to break the deadlock. Mr Atkins' office told No 10 they had used Soon to repeat "what was in essence the message sent on July 7".

The hunger strikes carried on for another three months, during which five more prisoners died.

Ministers even discussed British withdrawal from the Northern Ireland -- but admitted "civil war and massive bloodshed" were likely to be the immediate outcome.

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