Belfast Telegraph

Official papers an imperfect history of hunger strikes

By Maurice Hayes

At least King Lear was allowed the best part of a millennium before the fall from power, the loss of faculties, the desertion by friends and the descent into madness were recycled for public entertainment. Margaret Thatcher has not been so lucky.

There is a savage poetic irony in the release of state papers for 1981 portraying a dominant and domineering figure at the height of her intellectual and political power virtually simultaneously with the release of a film in which she is powerfully and movingly portrayed as a sad prisoner of dementia.

The recent papers do not tell us much about the period of the hunger strikes that was not already known - a situation that no one had really wanted which all sides had blundered into and could not find a way out of.

In the blizzard of commentary in the media, there is very little recognition of the fact that the documents were created by civil servants, mainly senior civil servants, a class that is currently the butt for every disgruntled hack looking for a headline.

Yet for these men, this was the cause of finding peace in Ireland and stable relations between Ireland and Britain.

In attempting to make sense of the hunger strikes, even in the avalanche of paper now becoming available, there is one gaping hole - the absence of anything from what might be called the other side, the non-governmental actors. The point has to be made that until bodies like Sinn Fein and the IRA (or former members) come clean on their contribution to the events of the last four decades, to the level of transparency they are demanding of the state, the history of the period will remain incomplete and speculative.

Another hole in the narrative, at least in the papers reviewed in the media, is the lack of any account of the role of the prison officers and their union in prolonging the hunger strike, or preventing a compromise settlement. The prison officers had been engaged in a bitter attritional struggle during the dirty protest, and were subject to a campaign of murder of off-duty officers

There is a strong argument that had they not forced the prison authorities to welsh on the terms of settlement of the first hunger strike, the second might not have occurred. For those who had lived with the problem at the level of government, this might have seemed like the end; the collapse of all their hopes and efforts.

For a less committed and idealistic politician than Garret FitzGerald, it might have been the time to throw in the towel. And yet, with patient diplomacy, there emerged the ground-breaking Anglo-Irish Agreement five years later.

Like Arthur Koestler's "active fraternity of pessimists", they would wait in the trough of the historical wave, ready to take advantage of any new horizontal movement. The year 1981, post the hunger strikes, was one such occasion. Oddly enough, among the first to recognise it as such were those in the republican movement who later engineered the shift from Armalite to ballot box. In retrospect, they might have got more out of it than most.


From Belfast Telegraph