Did IRA hunger strikers believe Danny Morrison's spin?
Republicans always insisted that the 1980 hunger strike ended because of British trickery. Now Danny Morrison has changed his story, says Liam Clarke
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the 1981 hunger strike and already Danny Morrison has enlivened the debate by puncturing one of the most enduring myths of the period.
For years, republican spokespersons - including Morrison himself - had maintained that the earlier hunger strike, led by Brendan Hughes, had ended in December 1980 because of British duplicity.
Only last year Gerry Adams wrote in the Irish News: "The republican leadership on the outside was in contact with the British who claimed they were interested in a settlement. But before a document outlining a new regime arrived in the jail, the hunger strike was called off by Brendan Hughes."
Adams added: "The prisoners ended their fast before a formal 'signing-off', and the British then refused to implement the spirit of the document and reneged on the integrity of our exchanges."
In July 1981, during the second hunger strike, this claim of earlier British duplicity proved crucial: it was used to resist proposals by the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace (ICJP), a Catholic Church body, which was attempting to broker an end to the protest after Bobby Sands and three other prisoners had died.
Hugh Logue, a member of ICJP who visited the hunger strikers, recalls: "Danny [Morrison] went in after the prisoners said that they should accept it and told them that they should demand that they [the British] send in somebody to read it out in light of what had happened before. Danny was peddling the myth that the Brits had reneged."
Logue accepted the spin - but did the six more prisoners who died that year believe it too?
Now Morrison has come forward to put the record straight. He writes in the Andersonstown News that: "Brendan Hughes ended the hunger strike unilaterally . . . we on the outside finessed the sequence of events for the sake of morale and, at a midnight Press conference, merged the secret arrival of a British Government document (promising a more enlightened prison regime: falsely, as it turned out) with the ending of the hunger strike."
Morrison explains that Sinn Fein made the incendiary claim of a broken agreement because "it was either that or admit - which to the republican base was inconceivable - that Brendan [Hughes] had ended the strike without getting a thing".
Without evidence of bad faith, it is hard to understand why the second hunger strike continued past the first four deaths.
We now know that, besides the ICJP proposals, Margaret Thatcher had made a secret offer which met most of the prisoners' five demands - including allowing them to wear civilian clothes. The existence of this initiative was first disclosed by Richard O'Rawe, the PRO for the prisoners.
In his 2005 book Blanketmen, O'Rawe said that he and Brendan McFarlane, the prisoners' leader, discussed the offer and accepted it in the Maze, but were over ruled by an outside committee headed by Gerry Adams.
Initially, McFarlane denied the conversation. When other prisoners said that they had overheard it, it jogged his memory.
Now, he said that, although the proposals looked interesting, they were too vague. Later a text of the detailed offer was released to me under the Freedom of Information Act and Brendan Duddy, who passed messages between republicans and the British Government, confirmed that it had been dictated to him over the phone by a British official.
Later still, Martin McGuinness confirmed that he had received the note from Duddy and sent it to Adam s. Other documents released under FoI showed that Thatcher personally authorised the officials to make the proposal "privately to the Provos on July 5th" 1981.
Thatcher stipulated that, if the IRA indicated privately that it was acceptable, then it would be made public and implemented. On July 8, the statement was tweaked by the British to meet republican criticisms of the language used in it. Nevertheless, the hunger strike continued. Logue can't understand why, "Danny [Morrison] told the prisoners to request the offer in writing when Adams already had that via Brendan Duddy".
O'Rawe suspects that the strike was prolonged until Owen Carron, a Sinn Fein member standing as a proxy prisoner, could be elected MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone.
At the time, Sinn Fein rules banned members from standing in elections, so Carron could not even have contested the seat if the prison protest had been over.
He won the seat on the very day that Michael Devine became the last hunger striker to die. Three months later, the anti-election policy was ditched at the Sinn Fein ard fheis after a rousing speech in which Morrison asked "Will anyone here object if, with a ballot paper in this hand and an Armalite in the other, we take power in Ireland?"
A whole new republican strategy flowed from the hunger strike and the election. As Adams said in his 1985 Bobby Sands lecture, "The hunger strikes, at great cost to our H-Block martyrs and their families, smashed criminalisation and led to the success of the electoral strategy, plus revamping the IRA."
High stakes, indeed. And it may have brought peace nearer. But did those who died know the full facts?