Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

The secretive talks aimed at ending the hunger strike

Margaret Thatcher

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

Dozens of classified files from 1981, released in Belfast, London and Dublin, shed fresh light on a highly contentious period in Northern Ireland's modern history.

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

The fast began on March 1, 1981 when Bobby Sands, the IRA's officer commanding in the Maze, refused food.

He passed away after 66 days on May 5 - the first of 10 prisoners to die over a four-month period.

The London Government's perceived intransigence drew widespread international condemnation and by the beginning of July pressure on the Prime Minister was intense.

Publicly Mrs Thatcher (below) was defiant, insisting she would not bow to the prisoners' demands for so-called "special status".

But files released by the National Archives in London reveal that when the remaining hunger strikers issued a statement dropping their demand to be treated as "prisoners of war", Mrs Thatcher authorised a message to be sent setting out the concessions her Government would make if the strikes were ended.

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

He is now known to be Londonderry businessman Brendan Duddy, who acted as a secret intermediary between the UK Government and the IRA for two decades.

The files include a log of frantic telephone calls between 'Soon' and his MI6 contact, Michael Oatley, 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.

In the final call, timed at 1am on July 6, 'Soon' spelt out the precise steps needed to end the strike.

'Soon' warned 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 "if, but only if, it would lead to the immediate end of the hunger strike".

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.

Despite the careful build-up and the apparent concession to the key IRA demands, the approach was rebuffed.

The next day a fifth hunger striker, Joe McDonnell, died.

The Government's frantic attempts to end the crisis contrasts with its early indifference.

NIO bulletins reporting on the early weeks described how the strike generated little interest, speculating it was unlikely to impact outside the prison.

The strike lasted until October 3, when it was called off by the prisoners.

There is widespread suspicion that a deal which could have ended it sooner was vetoed by the IRA's 'army council', and there are hints of this in some documents.

One letter reports a private meeting between the chairman of Newry and Mourne Council, John McEvoy, and the brothers of hunger striker Paddy Quinn.

The Quinn family believed it was not necessary to concede the five concessions demanded by the prisoners, and asked why a document setting out proposals could not be handed to inmates.

The confidential letter, written by an official and dated July 27, 1981, stated the answer "was quite simple".

It said: "The Government believed that the PSF figures controlling the hunger strike were determined to squeeze it for all it was worth and would pocket such an offer and order the hunger strike to continue saying 'three demands down, two to go'.

"They (the family) shook their heads sadly," it added.

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