A fresh glimpse into the untold story of the hunger strike
The hunger strike still divides opinion after almost 30 years. Brian Rowan believes a conference in Londonderry on Saturday may hold some of the answers
The source who spoke to the Belfast Telegraph has considerable knowledge of the Mountain Climber initiative in the summer of 1981 — an initiative linked to the republican hunger strike.
It was a secret contact channel between the Government and the republican leadership through which a verbal and private offer on the prisoners' demands was communicated.
The source does not talk about a deal back then, but describes a situation that is “dramatically complex” and says whether there could have been a deal “becomes an opinion how you interpret it”.
The answers that some are looking for do not exist, he told me.
“There is no new knowledge — no new facts. (David) Beresford in (the hunger strike book) Ten Men Dead wrote where it was at. Nothing was ever communicated on paper to the IRA.”
The source describes the period as the Thatcher era — long before the British and the IRA began to think and talk about peace.
“Thatcher wasn't thinking about the Good Friday Agreement. Thatcher was thinking about hammering them (the IRA).”
And he has another observation — “a lack of experience (on the republican side) in terms of how a Government worked”.
The prisoners' demand back in 1981 for the Government to send someone into the jail to explain A, B, C, D and E in terms of their offer represented, in the source's opinion, “a complete non-understanding of Government”.
“A representative of the NIO going in to negotiate with McFarlane (the IRA jail leader Brendan McFarlane) — not on,” the source said.
There are those who think that Brendan Duddy may be able to help with some of the answers, and this Saturday he will speak in a hunger strike debate in his home city of Derry.
He was the key link in the Mountain Climber chain and he believes the continuing row over the hunger strike is being fought outside all the emotion and the complexities and the doubts of 1981.
Duddy is on the record saying he spent every hour of every day trying to save the lives of the hunger strikers.
One of his daughters, Shauna Duddy, described to me seeing her father, shoulders slumped, a cup of tea in his hand, looking out the window with “tears running down his neck”.
This, in one house, is just one of the memories of that period.
You have to understand the bigger picture to understand Duddy.
He is a lifelong pacifist who wanted the deaths within the prison to stop and the killings outside the prison to stop.
His mission — even back then — was to develop a peace process and achieve a dialogue between the British and Irish.
During the Mountain Climber initiative Duddy was speaking to a representative of the British Government.
Some believe it was the MI6 officer Michael Oatley, but my understanding is it was not.
So what was Duddy's role in 1981? Was it to make a deal?
He will tell you that was a decision for others — “people at the coalface” — British and republican, the same republicans who felt conned at the end of the first hunger strike in 1980 and feared “they were going to be conned again”. Duddy believes this played into their thinking in the summer of the following year.
And he agrees with those, including a former woman prisoner in Armagh Jail who recently wrote to a Belfast newspaper to highlight the difference between an offer and a deal.
“Sile Darragh got it spot on,” he said.
Ten men died in the prison battle. Could things have been different? Almost 30 years on the argument continues.
“The real question is should they (the republican leadership) have settled,” the Mountain Climber source said. It's a matter of opinion.
“Were people at death's door (the hunger strikers) capable of making a judgment?”
Almost three decades later the story of the hunger strike has not faded. It is still being debated and argued and fought over by some who were part of it and others who were not.