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31 Dec 2011
An appeals court in Boston yesterday blocked the release to US prosecutors of interviews former IRA member Dolours Price gave an oral history project at Boston College after a researcher said that he and his family in Ireland would be in danger if the interviews were made public.
Acting on a last-minute legal intervention by author and journalist Ed Moloney, who directed the project, and Anthony McIntyre, the writer and former IRA prisoner who interviewed former IRA members for it, the First Circuit Court of Appeals issued a temporary stay and scheduled a hearing for Friday. It put on hold the order that the college give records to prosecutors seeking them for British authorities.
By Sam McBride
Friday 30 December 2011
THE IRA’s leadership outside the Maze Prison was controlling the hunger strikers and would not let them “give up”, the British government believed.
The belief, contained in a confidential letter where officials candidly discussed the situation almost three months into the protest, is at variance with the long-standing claims by the IRA and Sinn Fein that the hunger strikers themselves drove the process which led to their deaths.
A letter from the private secretary to the prime minister, sent to the private secretary to the secretary of state for Northern Ireland on May 21, 1981, outlines detailed discussions between the prime minister, other relevant cabinet ministers and officials about the ongoing hunger strike.
At that point, two hunger strikers had died and the government was preparing for the deaths of a further two within days.
In the two-page paper titled ‘Northern Ireland’, the prime minister’s private secretary wrote that the secretary of state had told the prime minister that “a time of considerable difficulty lay ahead”.
He then went on to say: “The next hunger striker (McCreesh) would probably die the following day, and a fourth (O’Hara) by the end of the week.
“There should then be an interval of three to four weeks before the fifth striker (who had started his strike only when Sands died) would be near death, unless he chose to accelerate the process by refusing water as well as food.
“There was no sign that the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) leadership, which was controlling the strikers, would let them give up; and there was no doubt that McCreesh’s family, including his brother who was a priest, had specifically dissuaded him from breaking his fast on May 16.”
Another document in the file expands on that claim, which was reported at the time, that a priest, Fr Brian McCreesh, had persuaded his brother, Raymond McCreesh, to go through with taking his own life.
The two-page document gives some insight into the ethical dilemma which prison staff, and medics in particular, faced as prisoners starved themselves to death.
A May 18 background note, whose author is not clear despite a hand-written signature, said that two days earlier, the prisoner – then on day 56 of his hunger strike – had been confined to bed and was described by doctors as being “in a confused and disoriented state of mind”.
The note was classified as confidential, which increases the credibility of its contents as there was no propaganda value to be gained from its contents at the time.
“At around 6pm he had a conversation with the prison hospital officer, SO Nolan, and in the course of that conversation said that he would take a drink of milk.
“Mr Nolan contacted the doctor on call (Dr Emerson) and asked him to come in to the prison to see McCreesh.
“On arrival, Dr Emerson found McCreesh in a confused state of mind but, despite this, gave an affirmative answer to the question from the doctor: ‘Do you want me to save your life?’
“Dr Emerson did not regard this answer as sufficient to authorise medical intervention in view of the mental state of the patient and took two steps to have the matter clarified.
“He asked for the family to be brought to the prison and also contacted Dr Bill in the absence of Professor Love in England.”
The note continued: “The family (mother, sister, brother and priest/brother) arrived at about the same time as Dr Bill (around 9pm).
“Dr Emerson explained to the family that McCreesh was very confused but had asked for milk and medical resuscitation.
“The family then saw McCreesh and the following conversation between the priest/brother and McCreesh was overheard [another document states that the prisoner’s hearing was so poor by this stage that the family had to shout at him, which was why the conversation was heard outside].
“Q. Where are you?
“A. I am in hospital in Scotland.
“You are not in hospital in Scotland, you are in Long Kesh concentration camp.
“(Later) Your brother and I were proud to carry the coffins of Bobby Sands and Francis Hughes – they are in heaven now, waiting.”
The note then records a short dialogue between the doctors and the family after their meeting with Mr McCreesh.
“Q. Do you wish us to try to resuscitate Raymond and try to save his life?
“Answer by priest/brother. No We know Raymond’s wishes and we respect them. Nothing is to be done.
“The doctors accepted this clear decision of the family and the interview ended. It was now around 10pm.”
Three days later Raymond McCreesh died, aged 24.
By Sam McBride
Friday 30 December 2011
AMONG many hundreds of pages of classified documents from the time of the 1981 hunger strike is a file on the man who started it.
The two-inch thick file, ‘Hunger strike: events following the death of Robert Gerard Sands’, tells the official story of Bobby Sands’ hunger strike and its effects from the perspective of the medics and prison officers observing him and government officials trying to guess where the protest was going.
Sands, the Maze Prison’s IRA leader and the man who would come to be most closely associated with the protest even when nine others died on hunger strike, announced that he was refusing food on March 1, 1981.
A single-sheet document in the file records the fact.
Signed by senior medical officer D Ross, the document is actually dated March 2 although it says that he “today declared himself on hunger strike”.
Sands’ weight is recorded as 64kgs, his blood pressure as 116/70, his pulse as 78 and a medical summary said: “Condition satisfactory.”
A handwritten March 6 note (five days after Sands’ hunger strike began), seemingly from a prison officer or official, notes that the high-profile prisoner was “cooperating fully with medical staff and prison officers”.
In a description of Sands’ demeanour, the note said: “He is normally of a sullen, dour disposition and remains determined to fast to the death – there is no sign yet of any weakening in his resolve or his health.”
The note added that prison tradesmen had made an adjustment to Sands’ cell window covering to stop a draught.
A further note from the same official several days later, on March 11, said that he spent his time reading newspapers and books in his cell.
It added: “His mood remains the same – resolved and resolute.”
Four days before Sands’ death and with the IRA man gravely ill, chief medical officer RJ Weir wrote a confidential note to Brian Palmer in the NIO about Sands and fellow hunger striker Francis Hughes, who was also approaching a critical phase: “Over the past two days the doctors, who are involved in the medical care of these two men, have reviewed carefully all the indices of their clinical progress.
“Having weighed up both the clinical findings and the scientific data accruing from laboratory tests, and having taken into account both the likely trends forecast earlier in the week and the patterns observed during the hunger strike of late… [rest of sentence underlined] we are suspicious that these two men have ingested some carbohydrate (probably glucose) and some vitamin B over the past few days.
“There is no way of establishing the suspected ingestion as an absolute certainty; the circumstantial evidence, however, amounts to a high degree of probability.”
The chief medical officer then drew attention to the significance of what medics believed had happened.
“Another possibility must now be faced as its potential implications are very considerable,” he wrote.
“If nutrients have been administered to prolong life then manipulative steps to shorten it or stage the timing of its termination [copy is blurry, probably ‘are’] possible.”
Dr Weir was puzzled as to how the prisoners could have obtained carbohydrate without the knowledge of staff attending to them in the prison and he said that it was difficult to see how the prisoners could have been made to ingest a substance without their consent.
But he added that if an autopsy was to reveal that death was brought on by “terminating medications” then “attendant staff could find themselves under suspicion”.
Although Sands did not die until May 5, the final medical report in his file is from May 3.
In the ‘extract from medical officer’s journal’, which is signed by the senior medical officer and the prison governor, medics recorded simply: “Dehydration+++” and “Condition deteriorating+++”.
His pulse was recorded as 100 and blood pressure as 70/40 but under urine analysis there is written N/A [and had been for several days, possibly because his body was not producing any] and the same was written under weight.
A handwritten note on the day of Sands’ death from an AB Mackay to a Mr Jackson titled ‘Release of R Sands body’ said that once the coroner had issued a burial order the family would “usually” be informed by the police that they were permitted to take the body for burial.
Several days later, on May 8, the chief constable and general officer commanding (GOC) met with senior NIO officials to discuss the security situation following Sands’ funeral.
The security chiefs reported that the trouble had been less widespread than they had anticipated.
Republicans claimed that 100,000 attended the funeral, but the chief constable put the number of mourners at 30,000.
“The evening violence was relatively [underlined] low-key,” the RUC chief constable was recorded as having told officials.
There was a “notable success” on the border where two brothers were arrested with firearms and cooperation with the garda was “excellent” in that operation, he reported.
Intelligence ahead of the funeral about the IRA’s intention for widespread violence was still “thought to be accurate”, he said.
However, the terrorists’ plans had been curtailed by bad weather and statements by the secretary of state and chief constable (himself) had helped to calm tensions, he said.
By Gordon Deegan and Fiachra Ó Cionnaith
Saturday, December 31, 2011
THE head of a vow-of-poverty order, with which former president Mary McAleese spent regular periods during her 14 years in office, has broken her silence on their unusual guest.
The abbess of the Poor Clares convent in Ennis, Sister Gabriel, said the then-president “came in and lived like one of us” for a short period every year between 1997 and 2011.
Speaking about the visits — which involved washing the dishes and cycles of prayers starting at 5.45am — Sr Gabriel said the former president formed a close bond with the women in the enclosed order.
And she added that Mrs McAleese became “such an inspiration” to the nuns by coming in with “no mobile phone, no nothing, she relinquishes everything”.
Sr Gabriel said: “President McAleese would be washing your dishes and you’re embarrassed thinking ‘the president of Ireland is washing my dishes’.
“In a way this was the only place she was Mary McAleese, she wasn’t the president. She could just be Mary and feed her own inner life to recharge herself for her duties.”
Mrs McAleese first revealed her link during a public visit to the convent in 2008, when she launched the Poor Clare’s golden jubilee celebrations in Ennis.
The connection began when local solicitor Michael Houlihan introduced her to the order of nuns in 1997.
“On her way out on that visit, she asked ‘could I possibly come back here for a retreat’,” said Sr Gabriel.
As a result, during her stays Mrs McAleese would join the nuns in their daily regime of rising for prayer at 5.45am, as part of seven stages of prayers each day.
She also observed silence throughout each day, apart from evenings when stories were told.
Today, a photograph of Mrs McAleese hangs on the wall of the main corridor in the monastery and is signed: “Much love to my dearest sisters, Mary.”
By Louise Hogan
Saturday December 31 2011
THE family of the third H-block hunger striker to die have denied allegations that they intervened to prevent him ending his death fast.
They also deny that Raymond McCreesh had asked for food in the days before he died.
Relations of the 24-year-old, who died on the 61st day of his hunger strike in the Maze Prison, said statements allegedly made by family members in the 1981 State papers were “falsified”.
The files on the 1981 hunger strike contained allegations that McCreesh, a Provisional IRA prisoner from south Armagh, had indicated he would accept nourishment, but family members had stopped any medical intervention.
Last night Malachy McCreesh, Raymond’s brother, said they refuted, as they had also done 30 years ago, the allegation they intervened to keep him on the strike. He also denies that Raymond had asked for food.
“The statements attributed to family members in the recently released report of a prison officer are untrue, inaccurate and falsified,” he said in a family statement.
“The family have always been convinced that the situation was deliberately engineered by authorities in Government and the prison service to break the hunger strike.
“Agents of the State abused the extremely vulnerable condition of a dying man for political and propaganda purposes. When their efforts failed they attempted to vilify the family.”
Raymond died on May 21, 1981, 16 days after Bobby Sands, the first prisoner to die.
Republicans and friends of Sands yesterday described the allegations that he made an offer to a Papal emissary to suspend his hunger strike just a week before his death as “absurd”.
A conversation between Sands and the then Fr John Magee, the personal representative of the Pope who went on to become Bishop of Cloyne, was revealed in the State papers.
A detailed account of a visit to Sands, in which the offer was made, was provided by Fr Magee to Northern Ireland Secretary Humphrey Atkins on behalf of the British Government on April 29, 1981, in Stormont Castle, according to a record of the discussions.
Last night a spokesman for Dr Magee, who resigned as Bishop of Cloyne after a litany of failings in child protection in the diocese were highlighted, told the Irish Independent: “He was appointed by the Pope as an emissary to deal with this matter, which was the whole hunger strike. He then submitted a confidential report to the Vatican.”
Jim Gibney, a Sinn Fein member and former republican political prisoner, had visited Sands before his death and described the allegations as “absurd”.
“At no stage did he mention to us that he had made this offer or this suggestion to Bishop Magee so I think the basis of that is absolutely bogus,” Mr Gibney told RTE Radio.
Danny Morrison, a leading republican, said he was in contact with the people meeting Sands and his family yet this was the first time he had ever heard this mentioned.
“I am suspicious about it. It is the sort of thing if the British knew for certain they would have leaked to undermine the integrity of Bobby Sands,” Mr Morrison said, adding it was “incredulous”.
By Graham Matthews
Friday, December 30, 2011
The Iron Lady
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, written by Abi Morgan, starring Meryl Streep
In cinemas now
Film can be a powerful ideological tool. Truth can be manipulated, tyrannies expunged and sympathy conjured for the devil. The Iron Lady, depicting the life and times of former British Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, is just such a film.
A generation after Thatcher’s unceremonious dumping by her own party as PM, and as the aging dowager struggles with dementia, the film tries to paint her as a modern-day British hero, struggling against the evils of terrorism, unionism and fascism (the Argentine junta) to deliver Britain into an age of unending prosperity and sunshine.
Iron Lady is a completely uncritical presentation of Thatcher’s legacy, a breath-taking attempt at rewriting history in favour of the Tory icon.
Thatcher is depicted as a Tory outsider, born of humble beginnings, but desperate to deliver genuine “equality of opportunity” to all. Meryl Streep’s Thatcher is a determined reformer, taking on the power of vested interest (whether the toffs of the Tory party or the unions) in the name of Britain’s shopkeepers and other hard-working folk.
The film tries to rehabilitate Thatcher’s entire political legacy, even those aspects that her own party has attempted to quietly walk away from.
The sinking of the Argentinean warship General Belgrano, during the brief but brutal British war to recapture the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands in 1982, even though the ship was heading away from the British-imposed exclusion zone around the islands, was justified because the ship may have been going to change course. More than 300 people died.
The wrecking of British industry, the creation of 3 million unemployed and the destruction of entire communities in the north of England is justified by the subsequent prosperity generated for some as Britain became the financial centre of Europe.
The film even attempts to justify the notorious poll tax, a deeply regressive tax where all British residents were to pay the same tax –regardless of income or wealth. The huge popular campaign against the poll tax made it practically inoperable, and forced its withdrawal by Thatcher’s Tory successor, John Major.
Not that there’s any hint of that in the film; Streep’s Thatcher simply says that it’s necessary, because everyone must pay something for the privilege of living in Britain!
Opposition to Thatcher is caricatured. The mass protests against mine closures in England’s and against the Poll Tax, are simply shown as violent riots. The only articulate opposition to Thatcher in the film is parliamentary, in the form of British Labour Party leader Michael Foot.
In the fashion of all conservative film made after 9/11, much is made of Thatcher’s opposition to terrorism — in this case the Irish struggle against British occupation. The film focuses on the Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombing campaign within Britain — particularly the attack on the Tory Party conference at Brighton in southern England in October 1984.
Thatcher is painted as a hero standing up against the Irish bullies, rather than the principal organiser of Irish oppression. The shameful persecution of republican prisoners in the infamous H-Block prison in Ireland’s north, which culminated in 10 prisoners starving themselves to death in 1981 as Thatcher refused to negotiate over their key demand for political status, barely rates a mention.
The prisoners enjoyed widespread popular support, with the first prisoner to die — Bobby Sands — being dramatically elected to parliament from prison during his hunger strike. This was a humiliation for Thatcher.
The Iron Lady is not content simply to whitewash Thatcher’s legacy. It also seeks to curry sympathy for the devil herself. Throughout much of the film, Thatcher is portrayed as she is now, a demented old woman, struggling to tell the difference between reality and delusion.
Her chats with her dead husband Denis, and her struggle to pack up his belongings seven years after his death, would soften the hardest heart. But Thatcher is not the nice old lady who lives next door. She is not a poor widow, struggling to make ends meet and pay for the heating in her council flat. She’s an icon of the neoliberal movement in Britain and elsewhere; a woman who’s government smashed social services, destroyed communities and killed thousands of Argentinean conscripts in an unjust, if popular, war.
The Iron Lady, while well acted and snappily produced, is no more than a falsification of history, intended to rehabilitate Thatcher’s legacy as another Tory government in Britain begins to take the cudgels to whatever remnants of British society that Thatcher left standing.
Richard O’Rawe says the release of secret 1981 government papers vindicates his claim that IRA leaders vetoed a deal
Henry McDonald and Owen Bowcott
30 Dec 2011
The Maze prison, where republican IRA and INLA inmates went on hunger strike in 1981. (Photograph: PA)
A former press officer for the IRA hunger strikers in the Maze has claimed that Margaret Thatcher’s offer of concessions to end the fatal 1981 strike supports his assertion that some of the republicans’ external leaders vetoed the deal.
Richard O’Rawe said the release this week of secret government papers from the period bolstered his claim that the prime minister had sanctioned a deal that could have ended the hunger strike earlier and saved the lives of up to four IRA and two INLA prisoners.
The documents have triggered a fierce debate within republican ranks over the precise sequence of negotiations conducted through a secret, MI6-operated channel of communication between the IRA and Downing Street.
Danny Morrison, one of the key Sinn Féin figures at the time, has claimed the newly declassified documents vindicate the IRA’s decisions because they show that the British government had not formulated a final position.
O’Rawe has been vilified in his native west Belfast over his allegations that a compromise was put forward by go-betweens that would have given the republican prisoners most of their five demands inside the top security jail.
The prisoners began the hunger strike to win political status and had five core demands, including not wearing prison uniforms as well the right of freedom of association on the H-Blocks. O’Rawe maintains that the 1981 papers provide fresh evidence that an offer was on the table in early July that would have been acceptable to the republican inmates in the Maze.
In the papers the go-between is codenamed “Soon” but has since been revealed to be the Derry businessman Brendan Duddy. Speaking at his west Belfast home on Friday, the former IRA spokesman in the H-Blocks said: “This was all confirmed in Duddy’s own papers last week [to the University of Galway] and now these archives from Kew confirm the same thing – there was an offer.
“There is no doubt about that now that on 5 July the British met the majority of the prisoners’ demands, which the prisoners accepted and Duddy has already accepted that to be the case.”
O’Rawe added: “Even the IRA army council was not told about this offer. These papers from Kew confirm and reinforce Duddy’s papers released to the University of Galway. In my opinion there was a secret cabal outside of the army council that vetoed the offer.
“They [certain republican leaders] played hardball with the Brits and the Brits called their bluff. In that period Joe McDonnell died. Was this stupidity or cynicism? Did they want Owen Carron elected as Bobby Sands’s successor or were they thick as champ? On 5 July that should have been it, over – the prisoners should have had the final say – but these guys on the outside cut us out. Even Thatcher had been prepared to offer a deal, as these papers prove today.”
For more than 20 years Duddy acted as a secret intermediary between the government and the IRA through his contacts with the MI6 officer Michael Oatley. The files released from the Kew archives include a log of a series of frantic telephone calls between Soon and his MI6 contact in the days leading up to the government’s offer. In one call Soon explained the IRA’s demands. “Immediately following the ending of the hunger strike, concessions would be required on clothes, parcels and visits. This, he said, would provide the Provisionals with a face-saving way out,” the log noted.
Others on the IRA army council in the summer of 1981 have confirmed they were not made aware of the offer and that a secret group based in Belfast took control of the negotiations in July. Ruaraigh O’Bradaigh, who would go on to break from Sinn Féin and form the hardline Republican Sinn Féin five years later, said he had been on the IRA army council during the hunger strike but had been kept in the dark about the British offer.
Morrison told the Guardian earlier this week: “We never got the final position [before] Joe O’Donnell [the fifth hunger striker] died. O’Rawe has written in his book that the republican leadership allowed O’Donnell to die to [build political support and] get Owen Carron elected [as MP].
“But the writ for the Fermanagh byelection wasn’t moved until 20 July, some time after O’Donnell died. O’Rawe’s book spends four pages saying what never happened.”
The Northern Ireland historian Dr Eamon Phoenix, writing for the BBC, disputed O’Rawe’s interpretation. “These documents show that the prospects of an early deal to end the hunger strike evaporated over that July weekend,” he said.
“The British never actually formulated their final statement while concessions were strongly opposed by senior NIO [Northern Ireland Office] ministers, led by Humphrey Atkins.
“This seems to contradict the former H Block prisoner Richard O’Rawe’s claims in his book of a clear British offer around 5 July.”
Professor Paul Bew, a leading expert on the history of the Troubles, said: “Some people will want to see this as proving O’Rawe’s thesis, but given the chaos of the time it’s difficult to go that far. It clearly does not disprove his thesis.”
30 Dec 2011
The police are now treating a fire at a GAA club in Derry as arson – despite initially saying it was not started deliberately.
The PSNI statement came after Sinn Fein said CCTV footage showed hooded masked men outside the building just before the fire started.
Sean Dolan’s Gaa club was badly damaged in the fire
Extensive damage was caused to Sean Dolan’s in Creggan in the early hours of Wednesday morning.
Police have said a senior officer will review every action taken by officers.
They said the review would start with “the first call received about the fire, evidence taken, CCTV footage viewed and lines of inquiry followed up by the investigating officers”.
“We would encourage anyone with a concern about police action to report the matter to the police ombudsman’s office.”
Earlier, Sinn Fein assembly member Raymond McCartney said CCTV footage showed hooded men outside the building before the fire started.
“It was absolutely arson in our opinion, we have said that from the beginning,” he said.
“The PSNI made a statement on Thursday that this fire was not suspicious, indeed they said it was an accident.
“When you examine the CCTV footage which was in their possession, then there are suspicions around this and I think this will lead to an investigation.”
His fellow MLA, Martina Anderson, claimed those behind the fire had carried out other attacks in the area.
“These are people who are running around our community, have attacked community workers and the talk in the Creggan community is this is the same organisations and personnel who are involved who have now attacked a GAA club,” she said.
The Republican Action Against Drugs group said allegations that it was involved were “scandalous and unfounded”.
“This is not the first time they (Sinn Fein) have publicly blamed us for different attacks that in time has been proved that we were not involved with,” the group said.
30 Dec 2011
Files just released by the National Archives show Margaret Thatcher took part in negotiations with the IRA during the 1981 Hunger Strikes, BBC investigative journalist Peter Taylor has said.
The contacts took place through an MI6 officer and a secret back-channel to the IRA code-named Soon.
Mr Taylor said the files show Margaret Thatcher was involved in negotiations with the IRA
Soon was Derry businessman Brendan Duddy.
Mr Taylor said Mrs Thatcher altered by hand one statement sent to the IRA.
“When I read these documents I was astonished,” he said.
“I think that they are revelatory and of genuine historical importance because they give lie to all sorts of assumptions that were made incorrectly about the Hunger Strikes and the relationship between the government and the IRA.
“These documents spell it out large that Mrs Thatcher was involved in negotiations with the IRA.”
The documents contain details of eight phone calls between the MI6 officer and Mr Duddy during the weekend from 4 July to 6 July 1981.
Among the proposals coming from IRA prisoners was that senior republican Martin McGuinness, now Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, be allowed in to see them in the Maze.
This was turned down by the government.
“That was all to do with the government’s insistence, Mrs Thatcher’s insistence, that she did not negotiate with terrorists, she did not and would not negotiate with the IRA.
“The documents clearly indicate that that was nonsense, that was going on all the time behind the scene.”
In the final call from Mr Duddy on Monday 6 July, he said the IRA endorsed their earlier demands and wanted to see a government response before it was made public. The government sent a statement straight away.
“This letter represents the government’s final negotiating position,” Mr Taylor said.
“Margaret Thatcher made changes to it in her own hand.
Maze Prison Republicans were on hunger strike at the Maze prison
“The issue of clothing is resolved, the issues of parcels and visits is resolved, but again, critically, the issues of work and association are not resolved.
“It’s Mrs Thatcher who crosses out the relevant parts of the document that indicate she, the British government, is not prepared to give in on work and association.”
At the end of the statement was a message.
It read: “If we receive a satisfactory response to this proposal by 9am on Tuesday 7 July we shall be prepared to provide you with an advance text of the full statement.
“If the reply is unsatisfactory and there is subsequently any public reference to this exchange we will deny it took place.”
Mrs Thatcher’s former chief press secretary Sir Bernard Ingham said he was completely unaware of any negotiations involving the prime minister.
“As far as I can see, there wasn’t a great deal of negotiation here,” he said of the newly released documents.
By Thomas Penny and Robert Hutton
December 30, 2011, 9:24 AM EST
Dec. 30 (Bloomberg) — Margaret Thatcher considered pulling out of Northern Ireland in 1981 as hunger strikes by republican prisoners brought international condemnation, in contrast to her public position that she would “not flinch” from keeping the province in the U.K., previously secret papers show.
While members of Thatcher’s Cabinet warned that such a move risked bloodshed, civil war and unrest among the Irish diaspora in British cities, the prime minister said all options should be considered, the documents released today after the statutory 30- year delay show. She also took part in drafting proposals to the prisoners aimed at bringing the protests over their conditions to an end even as her government said publicly it was not involved in negotiations.
“Many people in Britain now believed that a settlement of the complex problems of the area would be more easily reached by the Irish on their own and that continued British involvement could only mean the futile sacrifice of further British lives,” the confidential report of a Cabinet meeting on July 2 says. In her summing-up, Thatcher “said that further thought would need to be given to all possible courses of action in regard to Northern Ireland, however difficult or unpalatable.”
Ten prisoners from the paramilitary Irish Republican Army starved themselves to death in a protest that lasted from March until October. They included Bobby Sands, who was elected as a member of the House of Commons while in jail. The detainees said they shouldn’t be treated as criminals and demanded the rights of prisoners of war, including wearing their own clothes and avoiding prison work. The Cabinet records show ministers were given regular updates on their health.
At the July 2 session, at which they discussed the possibility of forced intravenous feeding of the prisoners, ministers considered a British withdrawal from the province, which they said was the hunger strikers’ “real aim” and was supported by “widespread feeling” in British public opinion. Also weighing on their minds were “increasingly disturbing signs of an erosion of international confidence in British policy.”
Ministers acknowledged such a move could result in civil war and “massive bloodshed” in Northern Ireland as well as unrest among Irish communities in the rest of the U.K., according to the report, which was considered so sensitive that only one copy was made. “Even the suggestion of a withdrawal could lead to serious unrest in western Scotland,” it said.
Ireland was partitioned in 1921, with the mainly Protestant northeast staying within the U.K. More than 3,500 people were killed in the conflict known as the Troubles, which began in the late 1960s and saw republican and loyalist paramilitaries waging campaigns of terror. British troops were deployed in Northern Ireland in 1969 and ended operations in 2007 after the province’s political parties agreed to share power.
While it was emphasized in public in 1981 that there were no negotiations between the government and the hunger strikers, the files released today include detailed secret reports on discussions through an intermediary codenamed “Soon,” who was speaking to nationalist leaders including Martin McGuinness, now deputy first minister of Northern Ireland.
Thatcher was kept informed of the talks, including being briefed after midnight on July 8, and her handwriting appears to be on a draft of an offer of concessions to be made to the prisoners, which she approved.
‘We Shall Deny’
“If the reply we receive is unsatisfactory and there is subsequently any public reference to this exchange we shall deny that it took place,” it says at the bottom of the text of the proposal, which involved changes to prison conditions and was rejected by the republicans.
President Ronald Reagan’s new U.S. administration was praised for its “reticence” over Northern Ireland in the face of growing pressure from the Irish diaspora, according to a briefing note preparing the ground for a visit to the U.K. by Vice President George Bush.
U.K. diplomats in Washington were watching the new administration with interest and Thatcher, the first leader invited to see Reagan, was already a fan.
“I’m really quite optimistic,” she told West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt by phone in November 1980.
Stephen Wall, a British diplomat, wrote that while Reagan didn’t give the impression that he “grasps the complexity of foreign-policy issues, and the fact that they are linked together” and that he “clearly does not do his homework,” he nevertheless “comes across as a man at ease in his job.”
Reagan, he wrote in August 1981, “is probably the first president since Kennedy to be regarded as both competent and decent. While his intellectual capacity may not equal that of his predecessor, he is a much more formidable politician than many imagined.”
There was a culture clash during preparations for the Bush visit when the U.K. security services held out against Secret Service agents accompanying the vice president being allowed to carry guns. The concern was that if Bush’s security detail could bring weapons, agents accompanying the first lady, Nancy Reagan, would want to do the same for the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer in London on July 29 and all visiting dignitaries would claim the same right.
The British also objected to the U.S. Secret Service checking security arrangements they had made for Bush’s visit. Martin Berthoud from the Foreign Office’s North America Department related a “bizarre incident” involving the wife of Foreign Secretary Peter Carrington in which U.S. officials met with and were defeated by the force of the British aristocracy.
‘Sent Them Packing’
“A group of Secret Service men attempted to check out Lady Carrington’s residence prior to her tea for Mrs. Bush without previous arrangement. She sent them packing,” Berthoud wrote. They “also contrived to infuriate the secretary of state himself by attempting to post their man as a guard outside his office door. Lord Carrington has said he will not allow this to happen again.”
The files released today also show how arguments with France, as Prime Minister David Cameron has experienced in dealings with President Nicolas Sarkozy over the European Union in recent weeks, are a British tradition.
Officials preparing in 1979 for a visit by French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing showed their counterparts into the Cabinet Room in the prime minister’s 10 Downing Street residence, where Thatcher was proposing to hold talks with him. The French expressed concern when they saw that Thatcher’s would be the only chair in the room with arms.
“The Elysee party pointed out that they would consider it essential for the president to have a chair equal in status — i.e. with arms — to the prime minister,” a British aide wrote in a memo. “Alternatively, would the prime minister swap her chair for a ‘regular’ (i.e. armless) model? Sorry about this — the French made the point quite seriously.”
Carrington asked the British ambassador in Paris to “get this little matter sorted.” In response, the French suggested Thatcher could sit in a different chair, before agreeing to check whether previous French presidents had objected to the seating arrangement. The outcome isn’t recorded.
–Editors: Eddie Buckle, James Hertling
By Michael Kelly
Catholic News Service
30 Dec 2011
DUBLIN (CNS) — Declassified British documents reveal the extent to which Pope John Paul II tried unsuccessfully to intervene to end a 1981 hunger strike by Catholic prisoners in a British jail in Northern Ireland.
The documents claim that, after the pope sent a special envoy, the leader of the Provisional Irish Republican Army prisoners, Bobby Sands, was willing to suspend the fast just days before he died.
The offer was conveyed to the British authorities by the pope’s secretary, Irish Msgr. John Magee, whom Pope John Paul dispatched to persuade the prisoners to call off the hunger strike.
The state papers, declassified under the 30-year-rule, claim that Sands told Msgr. Magee, who later became the bishop of Cloyne, that he would suspend his strike in return for discussions with a British government official, two priests and three other prisoners as witnesses.
However, the British rejected the offer, claiming it was an attempt to open negotiations. The prisoners, incarcerated for paramilitary activity against British rule in Northern Ireland, had begun their hunger strike in a bid to be reclassified as political prisoners, a move Britain vehemently rejected.
Sands died May 5, 1981, after 66 days on hunger strike; he was buried with a crucifix that Msgr. Magee had given him as a gift from Pope John Paul. Ten prisoners starved themselves to death before a compromise was reached that October.
The hunger strike significantly polarized tensions between the majority-Protestant and minority-Catholic communities in Northern Ireland. More than 100,000 Catholics attended Sands’ funeral, and Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, began contesting elections for the first time.
Most Northern Irish Catholics want Britain to cede the region to the Irish Republic to form a single independent Ireland, while most Protestants support the region’s continuation in the United Kingdom. A 1998 peace accord committed all sides to pursue their goals by purely peaceful means. As a result, Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom but is governed by a cross-community power-sharing government based in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
The declassified papers also reveal that Irish Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald appealed to Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich in 1981 for a change in the Catholic Church’s approach to interchurch marriages.
At the time, children of interchurch marriages were required to be raised Catholic.
But FitzGerald said he believed a change would aid peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. He wrote the cardinal that the government wanted to “indicate concern” and “raise the possibility” that the Vatican “might not perhaps be disposed to take special account of the Irish situation if invited to do so.”
“I trust that Your Eminence will appreciate and understand the motives that have led me to write to you at this time in these terms, in full recognition of the separation of church and state,” he added.
Soon after, the Irish bishops decided to postpone publication of a revised directory on mixed marriages. After a meeting with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in November 1981, FitzGerald described the bishops’ postponement as “significant.”
The new directory issued in November 1983 retained the promise by the Catholic partner to raise the children Catholic, but stressed that parents had joint responsibility for the religious upbringing of their children.
By Ed Carty
Friday December 30 2011
COLONEL Muammar Gaddafi urged the head of the United Nations to intervene and stop the IRA hunger strikes.
Comparing the deaths to ancient sacrifices and accusing Britain of lacking humanity, the Libyan dictator warned of a painful fallout if the prisoners were not granted political status.
Gaddafi said the hunger strikes were a “very painful human tragedy, a tragedy that should have shocked the conscience of the entire world”.
“It appears that the world in which we live has lost its conscience,” he said.
In the letter, addressed to Dr Kurt Waldheim, UN Secretary-General in 1981, Gaddafi said the prisoners’ deaths were courageous.
“These men should be granted a political status in view of the fact that they are indeed fighting for a just and sacred cause, the freedom of their nation, which is one of the world’s smallest, but which still has its place under the sun, free as God created it.”
At the time, British authorities urged the UN not to circulate the letter. Irish civil servants in the UN and the political and Anglo-Irish sections of the Taoiseach’s office insisted there should be no reply.
By Anne Madden
Friday, 30 December 2011
Jean McConville (left) with three of her children before she was abducted and killed by the IRA in 1972. Her body was found in 2003. (Photograph: PA)
An American university has until today to hand over recorded interviews with a former IRA member to assist the investigation into the murder of Belfast mother-of-10 Jean McConville.
Boston College was ordered by a federal judge to turn over recordings, transcripts and other items related to Dolours Price to federal prosecutors in Boston.
The material which was collected for the Belfast Project, an oral history project about the Troubles, was subpoenaed on behalf of the British Government.
Judge William Young of the federal court in Boston noted in his ruling earlier this week that a treaty between the USA and the UK requires the two nations to share information relevant to ongoing criminal investigations.
Boston College said it is disappointed by Judge Young’s ruling, arguing it “could have a chilling effect because people could be reluctant to participate in oral history projects moving forward”.
The Belfast Project’s organisers, which included author Ed Moloney and former IRA prisoner Anthony McIntyre, had promised their subjects they would keep identities and material confidential until the person had died.
The college is not appealing the decision. Prosecutors had asserted in court filings that the material sought is relevant to a probe into Mrs McConville’s death. She disappeared in 1972. Her body was found in 2003.
The IRA said it killed McConville because she was suspected of being an informer.
Price and another former IRA member, Brendan Hughes, have said that her abduction, execution and burial was ordered by Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.
According to court documents, Price admitted in news reports in Northern Ireland that she had driven the abducted McConville to the place of her murder.
Mr Adams, who was elected TD for Louth earlier this year, has repeatedly denied the allegations that he ordered the killing.
A Sinn Fein spokesman said it had no comment to make.
“It doesn’t concern Sinn Fein at all,” he said. “It is a matter between Anthony McIntyre, Ed Moloney, the PSNI and Boston College.”
However, DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson said he welcomed the finding of the court, adding it is up to police alone to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to bring a public prosecution.
Story so far
Police believe the material held by Boston College will assist an ongoing investigation into the 1972 abduction and murder of Belfast woman Jean McConville. The US federal judge who made the decision, William G Young, ruled he will make further orders for the release of information from the oral history project of the Troubles.
30 Dec 2011
The funeral of IRA hunger striker Raymond McCreesh in Camlough, south Armagh. He died on the 61st day of his hunger strike. (Photograph: Pat Langan)
Files contain allegations that a weak Raymond McCreesh wanted to take nourishment but was talked out of it
A POIGNANT description of the last days of the third hunger striker to die, Raymond McCreesh, from south Armagh, is contained in confidential files on the 1981 Maze hunger strike.
The files contain allegations that a weak McCreesh had indicated a willingness to accept nourishment but that his family had advised there should be no medical intervention. McCreesh, a Provisional IRA prisoner, was serving 14 years for the attempted murder of soldiers.
A “note for the record” dated May 18th, 1981, notes that on May 16th, McCreesh was on day 56 of his hunger strike and described by the prison doctors as “in a confused and disorientated state of mind. At about 6pm he had a conversation with the prison hospital officer and said that he would like a drink of milk”, the file states.
The prison doctor was sent for. Despite his confusion, the note continues: “McCreesh gave an affirmative answer to the question from the doctor, ‘Do you want us to save your life’?”
In a statement in the file, L Nolan, a senior hospital officer at the prison, informed the prison governor that when Dr Emerson put this question to McCreesh, “he replied ‘Yes’ in a strong voice”. Dr Emerson then phoned the hunger striker’s family.
When the McCreesh family arrived at 8.30pm, they were interviewed by the doctor. Nolan records that the family impressed on the doctors that “McCreesh’s wish, which was expressed some weeks ago, should be respected and he should be allowed to continue his hunger strike with dignity”. As a consequence, the two doctors left the hospital.
In a separate statement, Paul Lennon, a prison officer, informed the governor that he was aware earlier that day that McCreesh was considering ending his hunger strike but, when offered milk, he indicated that he wished to see his family first. “At 21.20 hours McCreesh’s visitors entered – his mother, sister and two brothers, one of whom is a priest.”
Lennon alleged that he overheard the conversation between the family and the dying man since, owing to the fact that the prisoner’s hearing was affected, the visitors had to speak loudly.
He recalled: “I could hear Fr McCreesh repeatedly telling his brother to be strong and to remember where he was – ‘You are in Long Kesh concentration camp, being looked after by prison warders. Remember O’Hara [his comrade on hunger strike]; he is strong and on hunger strike the same number of days as you’.”
According to the report, McCreesh asked about Francis Hughes, the second hunger striker to die, to which his brother, Fr Brian McCreesh, replied, “He is in heaven with Bobby Sands.” Both brothers told how proud they were to have carried Hughes’s and Sands’s coffin at their funerals.
At this stage, according to Lennon’s account, the prisoner’s mother said: “Now, Raymond, you are going back on your word.”
McCreesh was repeatedly told to remember where he was, not to get confused and not to listen to anyone but his family.
Lennon concludes his report to the governor: “At 22.00 hours, his visitors left the ward, reminding prisoner McCreesh not to get confused and that they would see him tomorrow [Sunday]. Later I learned that the McCreesh family said that he made the decision whilst he was in sound mind and the decision to remain on hunger strike stood.”
On May 18th, following his visit to his brother, Fr Brian McCreesh sent a telegram to British prime minister Margaret Thatcher to implore her to intervene: “My brother Raymond McCreesh is a prisoner in HMP Maze. For four years he has gone without clothes, without visits, without washing. He has now gone without food for 57 days. All he has left is his pride as an Irishman and his loyalty to his fellow prisoners, living and dead. I beg you to respect his dignity and save him.”
The prime minister replied to the priest that, while she hoped his brother would choose to live, the concessions demanded were not in her government’s gift.
On May 20th a solicitor acting for the McCreesh family issued a statement demanding an independent inquiry into “all aspects of Raymond McCreesh’s care and condition at the Maze hospital” including “why certain questions were put to him” and why certain “leaks” were conveyed to the media afterwards.
In a subsequent press statement, the Northern Ireland Office stated that on May 16th, McCreesh had indicated his willingness to accept medical treatment while in a confused state of mind but that the family’s wishes had been respected.
McCreesh died the following day, along with Patsy O’Hara, an INLA prisoner from Derry, both on the 61st day of their fast.
By James Downey
Friday December 30 2011
Gunmen fire a volley of shots over the coffin of Bobby Sands in 1981
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 Ms 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 the North.
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?”
From here: The National Archives
More overview here
30 Dec 2011
Newly-released State Papers from 1981 claim Bobby Sands offered to suspend his hunger strike just a week before his death.
According to the documents released this morning under the 30-year rule, the offer was conveyed to the British Government by the Pope’s Secretary, John Magee.
30 years on, and Government archives in Dublin, Belfast and London are opened today, giving new insights into the events of 1981.
The year was dominated by the H-Block hunger strikes in Northern Ireland, in which ten men died, starting with Bobby Sands.
The papers contain the claim that just a week before his death, Sands offered to suspend his strike for five days, when he met John Magee, then Secretary to the Pope, who later became Bishop of Cloyne.
Father Magee told Northern Secretary Humphrey Atkins that Sands said he would suspend his strike in return for discussions with a British government official, in the presence of two priests and three other prisoners as witnesses.
The British rejected the offer out of hand, claiming it was an attempt to open negotiations.
Senior Republicans involved in the hunger strike have told RTÉ News they had never heard of such an offer, which they say went against everything Bobby Sands did and said during the hunger strike.
‘Behind Closed Doors’ is on RTÉ One from 7.30pm tonight, where RTÉ’s David McCullagh examines Government documents to gain a fresh perspective on the events of 1981
30 Dec 2011
THE BRITISH embassy in Dublin produced a lengthy report on the relationship between the Provisional IRA and the Irish media, following a claim that RTÉ had been infiltrated by republican sympathisers. Embassy officials identified a ‘scattering’ of IRA sympathisers in the Irish media
The claim was made by councillor Paud Black, lord mayor of Cork, in a speech given to the National Tourism Council on November 18th, 1981. Two days later Black met the British ambassador and explained that, while he had received many messages of support, he now feared for his safety. British diplomats were sceptical about the veracity of Black’s claim. They had believed that the group which had most sympathisers in RTÉ was Sinn Féin the Workers’ Party (the stickies), who were “bitterly anti-Provisional”.
“This is not to say that we regard RTÉ’s coverage of the hunger strikes as having been successful,” wrote PR Whiteway, an official at the British embassy, “but it was reasonably balanced when allowance is made for the underlying sympathy of Irish journalists with the minority community in the North.”
Indeed, the BBC had come in for its share of criticism from the British government over its coverage of the crisis.
While Whiteway did not believe there were many IRA sympathisers within the national broadcaster, he did suggest that there were a “scattering of them in the newspapers and magazines”. Of these, he claimed the “best known” were Ed Moloney and Seán Cronin in The Irish Times , Deasún Breathnach in the Irish Independent , Vincent Browne and Gene Kerrigan in Magill , Eamon McCann and Gerry Lawless in the Sunday World and Paddy Prendiville in the Sunday Tribune . That said, it was also made clear that “the presence of journalists sympathetic to the Provisionals does not seem to have affected the editorial line of the main newspapers and magazines with the exception of Magill ”. Most newspapers remained “bitterly anti-IRA”.
Much more widespread than sympathy for the IRA was “dislike of British authority – particularly in Northern Ireland – which partly reflects general Irish feeling but may be intensified by a belief among Irish media people that they are considered provincial”.
Whiteway continued: “Most professional Irish journalists feed off the North. Death and disaster keep them busy and brings fellow journalists from all over the Western world to see them – offers of syndication rights, bylines abroad and so on. The hunger strike proved to many Irish journalists that they mattered and that Ireland mattered. No wonder that they milked it for all it was worth.”
Whiteway suggested that there was “an almost blithe lack of responsibility in what they write and a failing, either to perceive that the Provisionals pose a serious threat to society in the South, or – if they are more perceptive – to feel that as journalists they have any responsibility for this situation or much loyalty to the society of which they form a part”.
His document also noted “widespread irritation” with the media, “particularly in well-to-do and Fine Gael circles, and the belief that if they ceased rubbing everyone’s nose in the problem, it would, if not go away, at least be more manageable”.
In a follow-up memorandum, DR Snoxell at the Republic of Ireland department agreed that “little sympathy that does exist is motivated more by self-interest than by a genuine compatibility with PIRA”. However, he added that “the fact that journalists like Moloney and Cronin get their articles into The Irish Times , despite editorial control, implies some degree of latent sympathy for their views.”
Snoxell claimed “the media attracts bright people who are keen to make their names and faces known but the Republic simply does not generate enough internal news to go around. This may result in an obsession with the search for sensational news from the ‘war front’ and translate itself politically into an apparent sympathy for the left and radical chic.”
During the same period, the British foreign office clashed with Reuters over the news wire’s reluctance to use the term “terrorists” to describe the Provisional IRA.
In September 1981, PR Whiteway also reported on a lengthy discussion with Martin Mansergh, who had just been appointed as head of the Fianna Fáil research department. Mansergh entered into what Whiteway called a “long-winded” critique of the British government’s handling of the hunger strike.
According to Whiteway, Mansergh also contrasted with the calm and “statesmanlike” manner in which Haughey had handled the hunger strikes with that of the FitzGerald government, whom he criticised for holding “frenetic press briefings”. He also warned that Fianna Fáil was the republican party and that, if the present situation continued, the leadership might “come under pressure to do something drastic”.
In a follow-up note, another official described how he had relayed this conversation to Wally Kirwan, assistant secretary in the department of the taoiseach, who had replied that “Mansergh was a 100 per cent Haughey supporter who had made no secret of his political leanings . . .” Mansergh “evidently had political ambition in his native Tipperary but Kirwan found it inconceivable that he could ever escape the handicap of his ‘West Brit’ accent even though there was no denying his talent and ability”.
DEAGLÁN de BRÉADÚN
30 Dec 2011
BACKGROUND: THE FIRST to embark on the 1981 fast to the death was Bobby Sands, leader of the Irish Republican Army inmates at the Maze Prison, Long Kesh, outside Belfast.
The date, March 1st, was the fifth anniversary of the ending of political or “special category” status for paramilitary prisoners.
South Derry IRA activist Francis Hughes joined Sands on the hunger strike on March 15th. He was followed a week later by Raymond McCreesh and the head of the Irish National Liberation Army prisoners, Patsy O’Hara.
The hunger strikers had several demands, chief among them the right to wear their own clothes at all times. A previous fast ended in confusion on December 18th when the prisoners thought they had won this right, but then discovered that the authorities would only permit them to wear officially issued “civilian-type” clothing.
Five days after Sands began his fast, Frank Maguire, Independent MP for Fermanagh-South Tyrone and a former IRA prisoner himself, died of a heart attack. In the byelection on April 9th, Sands defeated Official Unionist Harry West by more than 1,400 votes.
On April 20th, Síle de Valera, John O’Connell and Neil Blaney, all of them TDs and MEPs, had a meeting with Sands, now 51 days fasting. Margaret Thatcher said next day that her government would not meet the TDs. “Crime is crime is crime, it is not political.”
There were several other unsuccessful interventions by political and religious.
On May 5th, after 66 days, Bobby Sands MP died in the Maze. His funeral in Belfast was attended by an estimated 100,000 mourners. Hughes died on May 12th after 59 days and McCreesh and O’Hara died on May 21st.
A general election was held in the Republic on June 11th in which two H-Block prisoners, Paddy Agnew and Kieran Doherty, stood.
Doherty died seven weeks later. Fianna Fáil leader Charles Haughey was replaced as taoiseach by Garret FitzGerald, at the head of a Fine Gael-Labour coalition. A fifth hunger striker, Joe McDonnell, died on July 8th after 61 days.
By the time the fast was called off on October 3rd, 10 prisoners had died. Outside the prison, 69 people had died in that seven-month period.
On October 6th, the new secretary of state James Prior announced a number of changes in prison policy, one of which allowed prisoners to wear their own civilian clothes at all times, but without any formal recognition of political status.
30 Dec 2011
The 10 hunger strikers who died (clockwise from top left) – Raymond McCreesh, Thomas McElwee, Bobby Sands, Patsy O’Hara, Kevin Lynch, Joe McDonnell, Francis Hughes, Michael Devine, Martin Hurson and Kieran Doherty. (Photograph: Pat Langan: PA)
At Cardinal Ó Fiaich’s behest, Fr Denis Faul set out his view of the prisoners’ position and how the strike might be ended. In turn, NI secretary of state Jim Prior pledged to take a conciliatory approach
THE MINUTES of a crucial meeting between the then new British secretary of state Jim Prior and Cardinal Ó Fiaich and Fr (later monsignor) Denis Faul, the leading human rights priest, days before the ending of the republican hunger strike are released today.
The role of Fr Faul in persuading the remaining hunger strikers’ relatives to seek medical intervention played a key part in the winding-up of the protest while the appointment of Jim Prior to the Northern Ireland Office on September 13th, 1981 paved the way for a resolution.
Cardinal Ó Fiaich and Fr Faul called at Stormont Castle on September 30th, 1981 at the invitation of Prior. The secretary of state said he was aware that there had been misunderstandings in the past but hoped that these could be avoided in the future.
Turning to the hunger strike, the cardinal invited Fr Faul to set out his understanding of the situation. The priest did not think more hunger strikers would die unless any of them suffered “a sudden collapse”. He believed the families would take them off before death. He had visited Block H3 the Sunday before and had found mixed views about continuing.
He emphasised the strength of feeling among the protesters: “They were relatively isolated, were inward-looking and they had a deep sense of loyalty to each other after five years of suffering and ill-treatment, as they did to their colleagues who had died.
“The atmosphere was oppressive and sectarian. The prison staff were of different religious and political loyalties and the men on the protest had suffered cruel and degrading treatment.” He knew of the view that the protesters had committed violent crimes but their attitude was influenced by the belief that the security forces had committed illegal acts and yet escaped prosecution.
Fr Faul believed that even if the hunger strike ended – as he hoped it would – the problem which gave rise to it would continue. The prisoners would be very bitter if they were forced into defeat and needed some “cover” if they were to climb down. They had no trust at all in the British and believed they had been deceived the previous December. It was essential “to take the sting out of defeat by making concessions”.
In his view work and association (with other prisoners) were now the sticking points but the prisoners would be helped to end the strike if they could receive back all their lost remission.
Prior noted that the cardinal and Fr Faul believed that Lord Gowrie’s recent meeting with the relatives of the hunger strikers had been useful. He emphasised that he wished to see an early end to the hunger strike and would avoid any talk of victory or defeat; nor would he wish the government to claim any credit.
He appreciated that any changes which might be made to the prison regime after the hunger strike would have to be precise and clearly established so that there was no chance of misunderstanding or recrimination. He was having this examined in detail. But the first essential was that the hunger strike must end.
Changes to the prison regime would have practical difficulties which would first have to be overcome; a more generous regime on clothing, for example, would take some weeks to introduce.
Fr Faul emphasised the importance to the prisoners of being able to maintain their military structure. “The OC was in charge and the atmosphere in the protesting blocks was military. He had been struck, for example, by the extent to which the prisoners viewed the deaths of their colleagues on hunger strike with the same kind of calm acceptance that soldiers had towards death of their fellows in battle.”
Fr Faul pointed out that “there would never be peace” while some 1,000 men were in prison. In his view it would be necessary to grant an amnesty.
COUNTDOWN: LEAD-UP TO HUNGER STRIKE
June 1972: Britain granted “special category” status to paramilitary prisoners following a hunger strike by IRA leader Billy McKee. Republican and loyalist prisoners could wear their own clothes and be kept apart from other paramilitary groups.
March 1976: Special category status was withdrawn, as Britain resolved to treat all prisoners as criminals. The first IRA prisoner jailed under the new regime, Kieran Nugent, refused to wear a prison uniform, wearing a blanket instead, in pursuit of a campaign to regain “political status”.
March 1978: A row over washing facilities and “slopping out”, and the “blanket protest” escalated to the “dirty protest” in which prisoners smeared excrement on the walls of their cells.
Late summer 1979: The IRA deferred a prison hunger strike timed to coincide with pope John Paul II’s visit to Ireland to allow an international anti H-Block campaign to take place.
October 1980: IRA sanctioned prison hunger strike. Seven prisoners refused food, later joined by 30 others in a campaign to win back “political status”.
December 1980: Hunger strike called off, and recriminations break out. The prisoners said the concessions promised in return for calling off the strike were not delivered by the authorities.
March 1st, 1981: IRA prisoner Bobby Sands refused food, and other IRA and INLA prisoners joined at weekly and fortnightly intervals.