Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Secret files: how IRA hunger strikes led to rise of Sinn Fein

Hunger striker Bobby Sands coffin, at Milltown Cemetery. Masked gunmen fire a volley of shots.
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 Bobby Sands mural, in the Falls Road area of Belfast

All through the spring and summer of 1981, Irish ministers and officials monitored events surrounding the H-Blocks hunger strike -- often hour by hour -- with frustration, dismay and fears for damage to relations with Britain.

Their reactions and analysis are recorded in state papers made public for the first time in the National Archives under the 30-year rule.

The hunger strike began on March 1, 1981. Bobby Sands became the first prisoner in the Maze (Long Kesh) H-Blocks to refuse food.

It ended in October after 10 men, including Sands, had died. During this time, Sands had been elected to the Westminster House of Commons at a by-election in Fermanagh-South Tyrone, and two other hunger strikers had been elected to the Dail at the June general election.

The IRA and INLA prisoners demanded "political status", expressed in concessions on issues including freedom of association and wearing their own clothes.

The British government under Margaret Thatcher was willing to consider concessions on some of these points, but adamantly opposed granting political status, as such.

Meanwhile, there were continuing contacts between British ministers and intermediaries, including clergy and families of the hunger strikers.

The concurrent role of the IRA and Sinn Fein leadership attracted little attention in the Republic, where Mrs Thatcher personally was widely blamed for remaining adamant against any concessions.

Here and there in the vast literature on the subject that has appeared over the last 30 years, there have been suggestions that her role was exaggerated and that the British stance was more conciliatory than it appeared on the surface.

But, at the time, the overwhelming impression in the Republic was of British obduracy.

These points are discussed at length, along with the political implications, in briefing documents by Irish officials. The documents reveal their authors' prescience and ability to take an objective view -- while conceding the enormous difficulty of reaching any compromise.

At the most basic level, they acknowledge that the hunger strike and the reactions to it gravely damaged community relations.

They point to the increased polarisation of the Catholic and Protestant communities and the ever-increasing weakness of moderates on both sides.

They thus give early indications, in particular, of the decline of the SDLP and the political rise of Sinn Fein.

They regard as a mistake -- and "a major triumph for the IRA" -- the decision by the SDLP not to contest the second Fermanagh-South Tyrone by-election that followed the death of Bobby Sands.

There is criticism of "the British security mentality -- that suppression, not political movement, is the answer to the North's troubles".

British failure to act in a timely manner had contributed to a new problem, the gains made by the IRA, "which pose a stronger challenge to our interests than for many years".

Sinn Fein-IRA now occupied the centre of the political and military stages in Northern Ireland.

As to their own intense work for a solution, "the limits of ingenuity and persistence have been reached and indeed the limits of prudence exceeded in our efforts so far to point the way towards honourable compromise".

At one stage, evidently approaching desperation, it was suggested that the British bring back their former practice of force-feeding hunger strikers.

In the outcome, the gruesome events were permitted to run their course. Most of the concessions sought were granted, but "political status" -- opposed by the Irish as well as the British government -- denied.

By that time, as the official papers suggest, Anglo-Irish relations had suffered considerable damage, which would take a long time to repair.

The papers do not give specific instances of British annoyance about pressure from Dublin on the H-Blocks issue, but hint strongly that Irish pressure for a compromise had become a major irritant in what should have been a normal and smooth relationship.

The Irish government under Garret FitzGerald, which took office in June 1981, had its own, unquestionably accurate, view.

Foreign Minister Professor James Dooge told his British counterpart, Lord Carrington, that "every death is a victory for the IRA".

On October 31, four weeks after the hunger strike ended, Danny Morrison spoke at the Sinn Fein Ard-Fheis in Dublin.

He asked: "Will anyone here object if, with a ballot paper in one hand and the Armalite (rifle) in the other, we take power in Ireland?"

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