Officials predicted hunger strike by republicans would be a non-event
Any republican hunger strike would be small, if one even took place at all.
That was the analysis of the Thatcher Government’s Northern Ireland officials as they dramatically underestimated plans for a protest in the Maze Prison in 1980.
It is one of a number of revelations about jail protests found in Government documents released by the Public Records Office today after 30 years of secrecy.
Confidential minutes of a meeting between the Department of Health and NIO show that civil servants underestimated what would turn out to be a turning point in British and Irish history.
Under the heading ‘Threat of a Hunger Strike’ the paper states that “the latest indications were that the probability was that there would be a small rather than a large number joining the hunger strike, if one took place”.
Just months later the first hunger strike, which lasted 53 days, would begin. In the following year Bobby Sands led a second strike which saw a total of 23 republican prisoners join, with 10 eventually dying.
Officials also discussed the possibility of allowing more frequent family visits, agreeing it would have value “on humane grounds” and because “visitors would probably have a considerable influence over the prisoners in persuading them to take food”.
Republican prison protests made international news and the Government feared the reports would have a negative effect on its relations with the US.
Indeed, Marie E Howe — then assistant majority leader in the Massachusetts House of Representatives — wanted to examine facilities and attempt to end the protests before they escalated.
She spoke to Fra McCann — now a Sinn Fein Assembly Member — whom she presented with an Official Citation to the House of Representatives for his “heroic stand in facing three years of torture and degradation at the British controlled H-Block of Long Kesh prison for the cause of civil rights for all the people of Ireland”.
Her proposal was met with disdain by officials, who declared her “thoroughly familiar with the whole range of republican propaganda”.
Aides decided not to allow such a visit, as it was believed she had demonstrated her sympathies to Irish republicanism.
Instead, they attempted to convince her that the protesters did not deserve special category status by “pointing out a list of crimes republican prisoners have been convicted of. Crimes that have also been condemned unreservedly by the Pope”.