Belfast Telegraph

Bid to end hunger strikes revealed

Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher's secret attempts to end the IRA hunger strikes have been revealed in official documents made public for the first time.

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

However, files released under the 30-year rule by the National Archives in Kew, west London, 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.

Four hunger strikers had died, and before his death their leader, 27-year-old Bobby Sands, had secured a propaganda coup, winning an election as an MP after standing in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election. So 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 the government would make if the strikes were ended.

The go-between who relayed the message to the leadership of the Provisional IRA is identified in the National Archives files only by the codename "Soon". He has, however, been named previously as Brendan Duddy, a Londonderry 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 (last word underlined) that a copy be in the Provisionals' hands before it is made public," Soon told MI6. "This is to enable the Provisionals either to approve it or to point out any difficulties before publication. If it were published without prior sight and agreement they would have to disapprove it."

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

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