Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

Plan to brain wash IRA hunger strikers revealed in archive papers

Bobby Sands' son Robert Gerald holds his mother's hand at the funeral of his father Bobby in west Belfast flanked by Masked IRA men. Picture by Martin Wright

The Government wanted to brain wash hunger strikers to abandon their protest while they lay ill in hospital, archives from 1982 revealed.

Pressure was to be put on inmates to stop fasting before their conditions became critical. An assistant governor who visited the infirmary at the Maze prison regularly was put forward as a candidate for the risky operation, Northern Ireland Office (NIO) documents showed.

Ten men, including Bobby Sands, died in their 1981 campaign to secure political status for republican prisoners. Seven were members of the IRA, three from the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA).

One NIO official asked: "Is there any possibility of using all the resources available to us to identify the best candidate for capitulation and then go to some lengths to organise pressure on them over the next number of weeks before his condition becomes critical?"

The operation was considered but discarded by senior government officials during the strikes, which lasted for 217 days and sparked international protest and mounting sectarian violence on Northern Ireland's streets.

A hospital officer or assistant governor was to befriend the prisoners and cultivate relations. Officials said engineering a capitulation would be of great value because the IRA's propaganda would be thrown into disarray.

Officials said there would be dangers if an effort against a single prisoner became public knowledge but that would be defensible if it could be shown to have prevented a prisoner's pointless death.

Another civil servant expressed scepticism about whether an inmate could be persuaded to come off the strike and said it would be out of the question to involve doctors or other hospital staff.

"The only obvious candidate for the brain washing would be assistant governor McCartney who visits the hospital regularly in the normal course of events," he said.

Archives also showed the government was prepared to offer republican hunger strikers the freedom to wear their own clothes if they ended their fast, it was revealed.

Despite prime minister Margaret Thatcher's uncompromising rhetoric on not giving in to the republican protest at the Maze high security prison, a briefing paper clarifying the government's 1981 position was uncovered in the archives.

While the administration's public stance at the time was defiance of terrorist demands and a refusal to negotiate, behind the scenes there was more flexibility.

"If the hunger strikes ended the Government would be prepared to consider adjustments to the prison regime but the Government would need strong evidence that the strike had ended before it could contemplate any adjustments, the NIO document said.

"The adjustments involved would include freedom for the prisoners to wear their own clothing and perhaps other moves."

Freedom to wear their own clothes were one of five demands made by the hunger strikers as a condition for ending their protest and was eventually granted when the action ended in October 1981 after the wife of another striker, Pat McGeown, agreed to him receiving medical attention.



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