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News Letter
10 January 2012

A CRUCIAL witness in an RUC murder investigation in 1976 demanded that he and his family be moved to Australia out of fear of paramilitary reprisals, previously classified files reveal.

The man, whose identity was not released with the files declassified under the 30-year rule, told detectives that he would testify against an unknown Troubles’ victim’s killers.

In a scenario which must have repeatedly occurred during the Troubles, senior detectives met top officials at the NIO in an attempt to persuade them to do everything possible to get the man into a court.

In the file is a February 1976 document stamped SECRET which is a minute of a meeting at RUC headquarters involving a chief inspector, two chief superintendents and an assistant chief constable Meharg. The NIO officials present were Mr Cromey and Mr Laverty.

The meeting was convened to discuss what assistance could be provided to a potential witness in a recent murder case. Another document identifies the “recent” murder victim as “AB” and the potential witness as “CD”. However, it is not entirely clear if these are the actual initials of the individuals.

The potential witness had told police that he would not appear in court unless he and his family could be safely removed from Northern Ireland — first to Great Britain and then to Australia.

Mr Laverty’s minute of the meeting stated: “NIO (B) had previously authorised the removal to a place of safety of families threatened because of assistance given to the police.

“However, the position was now uncertain in view of conditions ruling that the financial controllers’ prior approval must be obtained in all cases and the implication in Mr Gatlish’s letter of August 14, 1975 that only cases with an SB [Special Branch] involvement would qualify for payment out of the SB fund.

“The case now under consideration was purely CID and it would seem that there was no existing provision for the expenditure required to guarantee the witness’s appearance in court.”

It added: “Mr Meharg was seeking specific approval to cover the cost of removing the witness and family to England and if possible from there to Australia.

“The matter was urgent as there was a distinct possibility that the witness would ‘go cold’ on the police.”

At that point one of the NIO officials said that he had clearance from London to send the man and his family elsewhere in the UK but that “Australia was out mainly on grounds of cost”.

Mr Mehrag said that this would be “unlikely to satisfy” the witness and that another potential witness in a similar case wanted removal to New Zealand as he felt unsafe in the UK.

Chief Superintendent Finn then said that it should be borne in mind that “failure to obtain a conviction in the case could lead to further murders and the cost of removal to Australia, high though this might be, could save money in the longer term”.

The NIO officials undertook to re-consult London on both the case in hand and the wider issue of rehousing witnesses.

However, a later handwritten note on the page, seemingly by Mr Laverty, stated that after discussing the issue with a Mr Wakefield the potential witness could only be taken to Great Britain.

The document is one of many in a file ‘Assistance for families threatened as a result of helping the security forces’. Although the file is heavily censored, with chunks of it held back until 2064, it gives some insight into the dilemma facing the RUC and the government over balancing a careful use of public funds with exhausting all avenues to jail murderers.

Another case from the previous year had seen the NIO approve a payment of £2,000 per year to cover help for families at risk of intimidation if they helped the police.

A March 1975 letter from TA Cromey to the chief constable, J Flanagan, said that the NIO had “set up a channel of communication whereby such people can be helped to set up a new home in GB without any attendant publicity”.

He added: “It is worthy of note, I think, that of the seven families assisted in this way none has since suffered the unwanted attention of terrorists.”

In order to protect individuals’ anonymity, records were not kept, however this then appears to have led to problems in identifying who had actually been resettled.

And a confidential January 1975 note from a Mrs Bridget Batchelor at the DOE to a Miss BM Latimer at the NIO in London refers to separate problems with a family removed to England.

The husband got a job, she said, and through government contacts the local council was prepared to offer him a 100 per cent mortgage to buy a house, rather than arouse suspicion by moving the family to the top of the social housing waiting list.

However, the family wanted to move into a house which was £2,500 more expensive than the maximum mortgage which the council was prepared to offer.

She enquired whether any funds were available but added: “We have done all we can, and I’m sure you will appreciate that we cannot expect a council to offer a mortgage which they feel would be too large for the family to undertake.”

Deaglán de Bréadún
Irish Times
9 Jan 2012

Every year I am assigned with colleagues to peruse the newly-released State Papers. It’s a pity to have to absent oneself from the current political scene for a while, especially when there is so much happening in the contemporary world. But it is also quite informative to read through the internal government documents of yesteryear and you frequently gain a fresh insight into events that, in the present writer’s case, you actually lived through.

As expected there is a mountain of documentation on the Maze/Long Kesh hunger-strike. I have already filed a post on this issue but it is worth taking a second bite at the cherry.

The first thing that should be said is this: Hunger-striking is a deadly and fearsome act. You damage yourself and bring pain to all your loved ones. It is not something to be embarked upon lightly. It is generally accepted that even the IRA leadership did not want their associates in the H-Blocks to set out on that fateful fast. Hunger-striking is an action that is very hard to justify under most circumstances.

The Long Kesh hunger-strike was somewhat different from other such fasts one has read about. The prisoners were not being oppressed in the normal sense, as conditions appear to have been good for conforming inmates. The problem here was the denial/withdrawal of political status, exemplified primarily in the right to wear one’s own clothes at all times.

There was a document in the Irish archive about a senior Vatican diplomat expressing wonderment to a British representative that Her Majesty’s Government would not allow the prisoners to wear what they liked. What was the big deal?

Perhaps it was a reflection of the obsession with status in British society which was then mirrored by a counter-obsession on the part of the prisoners.

There has been controversy over the visit by Father John Magee, the Pope’s Secretary, to Bobby Sands, shortly before the IRA prisoner died. An internal British document – the claim is also reported in the Irish archive – tells us Fr Magee informed the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Humphrey Atkins, that Sands was prepared to suspend his fast for five days to allow direct negotiations.

The reaction of republicans has been shock and denial. They insist their friend Bobby would never have offered a concession like that. But what’s the big deal?

Sands was insisting on fellow-prisoners being present (IRA commanders in the Maze), the document states. So that bit of what one might call republican protocol was being preserved. He would have had direct negotiations with the British – a major propaganda coup. Even if the talks fell through, he would still have emerged a winner and might even have come through the whole thing alive. As an aside, one can say that a person of his determination and strong will could have made a significant contribution to the peace process and subsequent political developments.

Fr Magee gave what amounted to an order from the Pope of Rome that Sands should give up his fast. That has to have made a strong impression on a young Belfast Catholic, unversed in the ways of the world and in a very weak state physically. It is amazing that he did not obey.

But it may have been as a concession to the head of his church – a personage regarded as infallible in matters of faith and morals – that he offered to suspend his fast in return for direct talks.

Atkins turned down the offer. HMG could not be seen to be in direct public talks with an IRA man. Status again.

Yet we know that the British were in direct contact with senior republicans through the later-to-be-famous Michael Oatley. We know that even Margaret Thatcher was not as hardline in private as she proclaimed herself in public.

There was a serious lack of trust, arising from the previous hunger-strike of 1980 where the prisoners thought they had won the right to wear their own clothes but, in fact, were offered “civilian-type” clothing. The republicans were all over the place and pretty confused, judging from the documents. Securing Red Cross or European Commission of Human Rights intervention would have been an international propaganda victory; haggling over any issue other than clothing was essentially irrelevant.

There is controversy, too, over last-minute contacts between the British and the republicans shortly before Joe McDonnell died in early July. A row has been going on for years now as to whether or not the republican leadership turned down an offer that was acceptable to the prisoners, so that Sinn Fein’s Owen Carron would retain the Westminster seat won by Bobby Sands. This argument will probably never be settled, as there are differing political perspectives as well as contrasting versions of events involved.

Now we have the Boston College imbroglio. Republican and loyalist activists gave interviews about their past deeds on the basis that these would not be published in their lifetimes. This promise now appears to have proven unsustainable, at least in the case of one interviewee.

The past may be another country but we keep making involuntary visits there.

“…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 that they are demanding of the State, the history of the period will remain incomplete and speculative.”
9 January 2012

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. Incidentally, the papers do much to qualify the received Irish view of Mrs Thatcher as impervious to advice and persuasion, implacably waiting to claim victory when the last hunger striker had died or surrendered. For a variety of reasons, she is seen to have modified her attitude and to have been prepared for compromise in the end.

The recent papers do not tell us much about the period of the hunger strikes that was not already known, or intuited — a situation that no one had really wanted, which all sides had blundered into and could not find a way out of. Accidentally or otherwise, it proved to be the game-changer, the turning point in an intractable struggle that fundamentally altered the direction of modern republicanism and the face of contemporary Irish politics. The papers are better seen less as revealed truth than as raw material for further analysis and investigation by historians, journalists and others. They were not generally written, as some historians seem to think, with an eye to being read by them in 30 years’ time.

Mostly, they are working papers compiled under the pressure of events and the inability to cope with or even explain them adequately. 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.

And yet it was these men who patiently held the fort, who grappled with issues of life and death in the course of a bloody conflict that threatened to engulf the nation. For a small band who are inordinately represented in these current papers, this was the cause of finding peace in Ireland and stable relations between Ireland and Britain — and a settlement of conflict which was consistent with the national interest and with basic human rights. One voice more than any other resonates through the Irish papers, that of the late Dermot Nally, as a calming influence on the impetuosity of ministers and others, focused always on the national interest and the wider picture.

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. In the various fields of activity, governments in both jurisdictions may lay bare their secrets (or as much of them as they are prepared to divulge at present), revealing doubt, uncertainty, ignorance, prejudice or lack of judgement; while the others get away with reconstructed, sanitised memory, unsupported by, or unassailed by, contemporaneous documentation.

It is too much to expect that paramilitary organisations or ad hoc bodies operating under threat of arrest should achieve the same level of documentation as state agencies. But 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 that 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, in which both sides had become brutalised, 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, and the work of Dermot Nally and his colleagues and British civil servants led by Robert Armstrong, there emerged the ground-breaking Anglo-Irish Agreement five years later.

Like 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. 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.

We should be told why the basis of an offer to end the hunger strike was never put to the prisoners, says Eilis O’Hanlon

Eilis O’Hanlon
Sunday Independent
8 January 2012

A FEW years ago, Danny Morrison was interviewed for a BBC documentary on the Brighton bombing.

Later he expressed dissatisfaction with the programme because it failed to include comments by him which, Morrison said, placed the attack in context, not least his belief that “the bombing was a direct response to 1981, the hunger strike and what our community experienced under Thatcher”.

His problem was that, even then, the idea that it was British intransigence alone that led the hunger strikers to their graves was already becoming unstitched.

Two years previously, Richard O’Rawe, who had been the IRA’s second-in-command inside the Maze prison during the hunger strikes, published Blanketmen, one of the most detailed analyses yet of the republican prisoners’ struggle for political status. O’Rawe’s central contention was that there was an offer on the table from the British in early July 1981, which would have been acceptable to the prisoners had they been fully apprised of it, and which would have saved the lives of six of the hunger strikers. O’Rawe also argues that the prisoners were deliberately kept out of the loop by an outside cabal which, despite peddling the line that the prisoners’ fate was in their own hands, decided to reject it.

When Blanketmen was published, it caused uproar in republican circles. Versions of these allegations had been circling for years; but O’Rawe couldn’t be dismissed as one of the usual anti-republican suspects. He had been there at the heart of one of the Provos’ most iconic events; as close to its martyred saints as it was possible to get. Many of the figures around at the time backed up his memory of that time, including fellow prisoners and others who had acted behind the scenes to secure a deal.

Morrison, in particular, started to feel the heat, because it was he who had acted as a bridge between the two camps, one inside and one outside the prison, in that period. He insisted that O’Rawe was wrong to say he had brought a possible deal to the prisoners on Sunday, July 5 — a date that continues to be the focus of intense argument.

The release of the state papers from 1981 in London and Dublin this month was bound to reignite the debate as both sides sought to find further evidence for their respective positions in the now published secret documents. Morrison was quickest off the blocks, pouncing on a Downing Street memo which showed, in his interpretation, that the British did not formulate a final offer until the day after he went into the Maze. He went so far as to state that this “demolishes” O’Rawe’s claims.

O’Rawe, in turn, said the state papers confirmed his own analysis, which was that a deal was there to be had

that weekend, following the deaths of the first four men and with the life of the fifth man, Joe O’Donnell, hanging in the balance. Indeed, he points out, Danny Morrison had previously conceded in interviews that he delivered an offer to the prisoners that day. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, fellow members of that IRA cabal outside the Maze which O’Rawe had accused of rejecting the offer, are on record as conceding the same. They’re merely downplaying the significance of the offer now in order to counteract possible criticism of their own role, with their stories changing accordingly.

So the stalemate remains. Morrison is a sociable chap who has influential friends in the Irish media happy to peddle his version of events. He’s been given a fair wind. O’Rawe is having a rougher time of it. He’s cycling uphill against a strong gale of Sinn Fein propaganda. But his story needs to be told. Maybe too much has been written already about the 10 men who died on hunger strike and not enough about the more than 60 victims killed by the IRA that year as violence escalated on the back of the H Blocks protest, whose lost lives were no less precious. But the characters of the actors involved in that terrible period matter.

Northern Ireland came closer to civil war that year than at any time during the Troubles. Down here, the atmosphere was no less febrile and overheated. Two hundred people were hospitalised after violent protests outside the British embassy in Dublin; the country came to within a whisker of deploying the army against its own citizens. The idea that this atmosphere was deliberately stoked for political advantage is not only shocking, it remains relevant.

Sinn Fein rose to influence on the back of the hunger strikers, and continues to commercially exploit their iconic image (Bobby Sands’ tea towel, anyone?) They are people for whom headstones are more like stepping stones to where they want to get; not even the prospect of civil war reins them in; and they’re ruthless when challenged.

Most of the fiercest critics of Sinn Fein from within the republican movement have been forced to leave Belfast because the atmosphere for their families became too unpleasant. Richard O’Rawe stuck it out. It can’t be easy. A private man, he has been accused of seeking some kind of glory with his claims.

I even remember, when his book was published, the absurd whispers going round Belfast that he was only saying what he did because he needed the money that a sensationalist bestseller would bring. It was a reminder of Sinn Fein’s attitude to dissent. History has different versions, those involved have conflicting memories, but for them only the single officially sanctioned version must be the one to prevail, because it remains as useful to them now as it ever was.

They can change and refine and fine-tune their stories as often as they like, but they’re merely playing semantic games. What they’re clinging to now is the line that there was no “final” deal on offer before Joe O’Donnell died, but O’Rawe never said that there was, only that there was the basis for a deal which, with clarification, could have ended the hunger strike sooner. His enemies are engaged in the classic rhetorical tactic of refuting things he never said.

Morrison leapt upon the newly released State papers with all the smartaleckery of a student debater who thinks that by unpicking minor details in his opponent’s case he can thereby render the whole argument invalid. The main thrust of O’Rawe’s argument was confirmed by the state papers, which showed the Irish and British were not only increasingly convinced that the hunger strikers were being used as pawns in a political game, but also well aware of tensions between the leadership inside and outside the Maze.

They also confirm the most important point of all. There was an offer. The details may have remained to be thrashed out, but there was the bones of an offer that may well have been acceptable to the prisoners, but for some reason it was rejected by an inner circle in the republican movement which didn’t even clear its decisions with the IRA leadership, as Ruairi O Bradaigh, on the Army Council at the time, has confirmed.

Why that offer was rejected will be debated for a long time to come; more revelations may yet emerge; many state papers are still embargoed. But Sinn Fein did very well out of the decision to continue the hunger strikes through six further agonising deaths.

News Letter
7 January 2012

SENIOR civil servants believed that the IRA was hacking into secure government phone lines and intercepting radio messages, previously classified documents from 1979 reveal.

The revelation, on the eighth day of the News Letter’s coverage of the 1981 government records, comes from a file covering events two years before the hunger strike.

Northern Ireland Office officials believed that the IRA was even able to intercept telephone messages which used a security system they referred to as ‘the scrambler’.

That appears from one file to have been a classified military encryption system for telephones – Goliath Mark III – which had been installed on several lines, including one between the Maze Prison and Dundonald House which would be crucial in relaying messages during the hunger strike.

The document contains further evidence of the technical ability of some IRA operatives who were found inside the Maze with a commercial radio which had been radically altered to intercept security forces’ radio messages.

Another document gives further details of why the Government believed that the hunger strikers, contrary to what Sinn Fein insisted, were being controlled in their actions by the IRA leadership outside the Maze Prison.

Prison officers in May 1981 overheard the family of hunger striker Brendan McLaughlin, who broke his fast after 13 days when he suffered a perforated stomach ulcer, telling him that PIRA and Sinn Fein wanted him to seek medical treatment.

Sinn Fein subsequently admitted that it would have achieved little propaganda value from his early death of a stomach ulcer.

News Letter
6 January 2012

Ulsters Day of Action at City Hall. Huge Crowds of Loyalists took the advice of Paisley and other Unionists to take the afternoon off work to show their feelings to the Government . 23/11/8 (Photo: PACEMAKER PRESS INTL. BELFAST)

PERMEATING almost every 1981 Government file concerned with political or security developments is the presence of Ian Paisley.

From the decriminalisation of homosexuality to the hunger strike and the Ulster Unionist Party’s internal wranglings, how to avoid handing the DUP leader an easy victory appears to be uppermost in officials’ minds.

Previously classified files just released under the 30-year rule show that officials and ministers appeared genuinely frightened of what Dr Paisley was saying and doing.

At the height of the MP, MEP and Free Presbyterian moderator’s political powers, this was the year when the DUP narrowly (and fleetingly) overtook the UUP in a local council election, polling 0.2 per cent more than the UUP in the May poll.

The man who would go on to cheerfully share power with a former IRA commander and be elevated to the House of Lords as Lord Bannside was in 1981 spoken of by officials in similar terms to terrorist leaders.

The files show that officials and ministers appeared frightened of what Dr Paisley was saying and doing, particularly his creation of the ‘Third Force’, although officials appeared to be more concerned about the perception that the paramilitary force was acting with implicit government support than any fear of its members’ military ability.

In fact one document shows that officials believed ‘gun certificates’ which the Third Force showed to journalists one night to demonstrate the group’s power were actually pieces of House of Commons notepaper.

The group marched several times that year in Protestant towns, most notably in November when, following the murder of Ulster Unionist MP Robert Bradford, several thousand men paraded through Newtownards wearing masks.

On December 7, 1981, senior NIO civil servant David Blatherwick — who would go on to become a UK ambassador to the United Nations, Dublin and Cairo — sent a confidential note to the secretary of state and other senior officials about the Third Force.

He said: “An increasing number of Protestants, as well as Catholics, are complaining that the Government is not standing up to the Third Force.

“Everyone knows that laws are being broken.

“Parallels are being drawn with alleged Government failure to confront the ULWC strike in 1974 [which brought down the Sunningdale Agreement], and the secretary of state’s declarations that private armies will not be tolerated are being made to look empty.

“Allegations of sympathy if not complicity between the Third Force and the RUC and UDR are causing especial indignation – again not only among Catholics.”

He said there were “several dangers in this”, among them that “the Provisionals’ propagandists are being given a useful new theme. Some Catholics are no doubt again beginning to take out insurance with PIRA”.

However, another file shows that SDLP leader John Hume told officials that he was not afraid of the Third Force, though he knew that many Catholics were afraid of the group.

Eventually the Third Force faded as the DUP’s focus shifted back to fighting elections.

3 Jan 2012

New government information has raised more questions over whether the 1981 hunger strikes could have been stopped sooner.

Veteran republicans have continued to disagree over the release of classified government documents concerning the 1981 hunger strikes.

The papers suggest the government made an offer that could have saved the fifth man to die, Joe McDonnell.

Richard O’Rawe, the IRA’s second-in-command in the Maze Prison at the time, has backed the scenario played out in the government documents.

But Sinn Fein’s then publicity director Danny Morrison rejected that account.

The government papers were released under the 30 years rule and also appear to show that Margaret Thatcher was involved in negotiations with the IRA during the hunger strikes.

Speaking on Radio Ulster, Mr O’Rawe repeated allegations he originally made in his book Blanketmen in 2005, that the IRA leadership allowed men to die despite there being a considerable offer on the table from the British government.

Mr Morrison has consistently rejected this and said that at the time it was “unclear what they were proposing to do”.

The debate centres on and around 5 July 1981 and the supposed offer that was made. Mr O’Rawe said it was virtually identical to that which the republican prisoners ultimately accepted much later after 10 men had died.

Mr O’Rawe said it was “absolute rubbish” that the prisoners were made aware of everything that was happening.

“The prisoners were consulted about nothing, absolutely nothing,” he said.
Government papers Government papers reveal Margaret Thatcher made an offer to republican prisoners in 1981

“I was number two in the prison, effectively, as PRO (press officer) of the prisoners. Bik McFarlane was number one.

Adams rejection

“I knew nothing about any of this. I knew there was telephone conversations but the first I have seen them in context was the release of government papers last week like everyone else.

Government papers reveal Margaret Thatcher made an offer to republican prisoners in 1981

“The prisoners knew nothing, the prisoners were told absolutely nothing and to suggest otherwise is nonsense.”

Mr Morrison was granted access to the Maze Prison in 1981 and Mr O’Rawe said he was involved in passing on the offer to the prisoners.

“The fact of the matter is that the prison leadership, Bik McFarlane and myself, accepted the offer,” he said.

“The offer which Danny Morrison brought in, which Brendan Duddy said he brought in, which I say he brought in on 5 July when he visited the prison hospital.

“Bik McFarlane came back to our wing and he and I accepted the offer. That’s the bottom line.

“After that, a communication came in from Gerry Adams rejecting our acceptance of the offer. If the prisoners were sovereign then the hunger strike should have ended.”

Mr Morrison, who helped lead the negotiations, said Mrs Thatcher was not prepared to do a deal with the IRA during the hunger strikes.

He said she had ultimately listened to her advisers who were opposed to any compromise.

“Humphrey Atkins, who was secretary of state, and Michael Ellison, who was the prisons minister, their advice to her throughout was ‘do nothing, don’t move’,” he said.

“If we go back to a document that was released, on the 18 July this is what the document says :’She (Mrs Thatcher) was more concerned about doing the right thing by Northern Ireland than to try and satisfy international critics’.

News Letter
2 January 2012

A CIVIL servant who went on to become a British ambassador attempted to get the secretary of state involved in a plan to remove Ulster Unionist leader Jim Molyneaux, previously classified files reveal.

David Blatherwick – who went on to become Sir David and served as British Ambassador to the United Nations, Ireland and Egypt during the late 1980s and 1990s – was an official at the NIO who in 1981 regularly liaised with senior members of the main parties.

In one dramatic exchange contained in files released under the 30-year rule, Mr Blatherwick suggested that the secretary of state abandon what he claimed was the NIO’s policy of “not interfering” in local parties’ affairs.

It is not clear whether the advice ever reached Jim Prior, who had been secretary of state for just over two months at the time, but the “particularly unwise” suggestion led to a withering rejection from the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Ewart Bell.

Mr Blatherwick’s note, which came just 10 days after the murder of Ulster Unionist MP Robert Bradford by the IRA, said: “The events of the last few days have almost certainly put the final nail in Mr Molyneaux’s coffin as leader of the Official Unionist Party.

“He performed abysmally at Belfast City Hall yesterday. He has been unable to take the fight to Mr Paisley.

“His party is fragmenting, with [Harold] McCusker and Carson going towards the paramilitaries, [John] Taylor towards Dr Paisley and the devolutionist group acting as a time bomb in the rump.

“I do not believe we can do anything to prop up Mr Molyneaux. His continued leadership is not just an embarrassment but a grave disadvantage to everyone because while he is there no alternative can emerge to focus ‘moderate’ unionist support and present the alternative to Paisleyism.”

The memo added: “The problem is, of course, finding an alternative leader. The obvious choice would be Mr McCusker, who has in the past refused to mount a challenge because of illness and out of loyalty to Mr Molyneaux.

“However, Mr McCusker’s views have changed radically over the past 10 days and his address at Harland and Wolff yesterday was able.”

Mr Blackerwick said that the only other real contender was John Taylor and “like most members of the party, I doubt whether he is capable – or willing – to present an alternative to Mr Paisley”.

The memo continued, explicitly requesting that the NIO be allowed to interfere in the UUP’s affairs.

“In the past, we have carefully refrained from interfering in the affairs of political parties here. However, I wonder whether in these circumstances we should not break our rule and urge Mr McCusker to unseat Mr Molyneaux.

“Such an approach would presumably have to be made by the secretary of state, on the basis that in current circumstances Northern Ireland could not afford Mr Molyneaux.”

Mr Blackerwick then made further suggestions as to what the secretary of state may be encouraged to do: “If he felt able to do this, the secretary of state might also urge Mr McCusker to put a basic point across to Ulster Protestants: that the democratic government of the UK lies in Westminster; that there is no room for people who try to usurp government’s functions and that all citizens in NI must choose – not to choose is to make a choice against the government.”

However, the following day Mr Blatherwick’s paper received a stern rebuke from Mr Bell, later Sir Ewart, and no further record of the incident is recorded.

On November 25, 1981, the head of the civil service wrote a confidential response to just five people: “I have just seen Mr Blatherwick’s minute of November 24, suggesting that the secretary of state should ‘interfere’ in the affairs of the Official Unionist Party in an effort to bring about a change of leadership.

“I think that it would be a serious mistake to do this. To begin with, it would become known and be criticised on the grounds that the secretary of state was stepping outside his field of responsibility.

“At a time when we are having to underline where the authority of the secretary of state applies, that would be particularly unwise.

“Second, I do not think that the OUP needs to be told that it lacks leadership and is losing ground to more extreme unionist groups.

“Moves are afoot to unseat Mr Molyneaux and would by now have had results were an obvious successor in the wings. Recent events will have gone a long way to bringing about the necessary change. When it takes place is the time for the secretary of state to move – definitely not before.”

Handwritten on top of the memo are the words: “Mr Bell, I spoke accordingly!” and an illegible signature.

Irish media mythology paints the programme ‘Today Tonight’ as the key front in an internal and vicious tussle for power at RTÉ by the Worker’s Party – but has the role of the so-called ‘Stickies’ been exaggerated?

Irish Times
3 Jan 2012

IN OCTOBER 1980, a new show called ‘Today Tonight’, was aired on RTÉ One. The aim of the programme was to shake up the station’s current affairs coverage, deemed moribund for several years.

While ‘Today Tonight’ covered the political dogfights, economic malaise and personal tragedies that dominated life in the Republic during the 1980s, the programme was, according to Irish media mythology, the key front in an internal, and often extraordinarily vicious, tussle for ideological mastery of RTÉ by members of the Workers’ Party or, to use the slang of the time, “the Stickies”.

Against the bloody backdrop of the Troubles, a secret branch of the party, the Ned Stapleton Cumann, was supposed to wield huge influence in Montrose, shaping editorial policy, ensuring compliance with Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act – which excluded Sinn Féin and the IRA from the airwaves – and sidelining those who disagreed with them. It remains one of the most contentious chapters in RTÉ’s history. These days, many of those involved feel that the legend has outgrown the reality.

“I’m not saying it was all mythology,” says Joe Mulholland, former editor of ‘Today Tonight’ . “I think there was some truth in it, but it was far exaggerated.”

All involved, however, concede that it was a time of high stakes and heightened emotions. “There would be something strange if at the time of an armed conflict, the national broadcaster wasn’t the cockpit of ideological struggle,” says writer and former RTÉ producer Eoghan Harris, the leading figure in the station’s Workers’ Party caucus in the 1970s and 1980s, “and Section 31 was the flashpoint.”

The Workers’ Party’s roots lay in the split between the Provisional and Official Sinn Féin in 1970 (following a similar division in the IRA), with the latter party taking a Marxist approach and eventually opposing Republican violence.

By the late 1970s Harris, one of RTÉ’s most dynamic producers, was also a major intellectual voice in the party: he says he kept his membership secret in order to avoid being suspended by management. “You couldn’t have a political life in RTÉ,” he says. “The Workers’ Party’s reputation for secrecy was exaggerated. It was just about keeping your job.”

There were few paid-up members of the party – only four, according to Harris – but, says Mulholland, “there were others who liked to be part of the Harris clique – he had huge sway.” Mulholland says his own political evolution, from having republican sympathies to being “implacably opposed” to the IRA, was down to the influence of Harris.

What impact all this activity had is still debated. Vincent Browne, in a 1982 series about the Workers’ Party, wrote that Today Tonight, under the aegis of party members, covered the North in a biased manner.

Harris dismisses the idea that his party had any direct editorial pull: “There’s a big difference between having a paper branch and manipulating programme making.”

But while Mulholland says “there were people who because of their political leanings were, to say the least, tolerant of the terrorist campaign conducted in the North,” RTÉ executive Betty Purcell, then a radio producer, says “there were many of us who were driven by a journalistic agenda that RTÉ needed to cover all sides.”

Purcell says those who opposed the Workers’ Party line got “name-called and pilloried”, leading to an air of intimidation and self-censorship: Mary McAleese, then a reporter with Today Tonight, later claimed that RTÉ had an anti-nationalist and anti-Catholic atmosphere at the time.

By the late 1980s, whatever hold the Workers’ Party had was waning. Section 31 was eventually repealed by minister for arts, culture and the gaeltacht Michael D Higgins in 1994. “The Workers’ Party lost the ideological battle in RTÉ and I resigned from the union [Workers Union of Ireland],” says Harris, who still feels his stance was correct. “I felt that if RTÉ lifted Section 31, Sinn Féin would run rings around our reporters. When it was abolished, Sinn Féin made hay.”

As to Workers’ Party influence in Montrose, opinions unsurprisingly vary. Harris says that “Trotskyists”, united on the issue of Section 31, had more power than his smaller, if more organised caucus, though he feels that the most pervasive ethos of the day was that of Fianna Fáil.

Purcell, in contrast, thinks the Workers’ Party had “a disproportionate influence, because they were so articulate and organised, while the rest of us were individuals making it up as we went along.”

Irish Times
31 Dec 2011

MARGARET THATCHER personally vetoed any initiative that would have led to further Anglo-Irish co-operation and British officials were urged to keep any correspondence with their Irish counterparts “long, worthy, meaty and dull” in 1981, papers released by the National Archives in London reveal.

Communication between London and Dublin remained civil, if muted, despite the tense atmosphere caused by the hunger strikes and the disruption of the Irish general election in June.

Following the celebrated Anglo-Irish summit of December 1980, British and Irish officials had agreed to conduct a series of “joint studies” investigating the “unique relationship” between the two countries.

Over the following year, British officials sometimes complained about the “carping” of their Irish counterparts at the lack of progress. Behind the scenes, Thatcher personally scrutinised nearly every page of official correspondence between the two governments, scribbling notes and warning her civil servants against any further creep in Anglo-Irish co-operation.

Meanwhile, from February 1981 Ian Paisley announced his “Carson Trail” of rallies and public meetings, partly in protest to the Haughey-Thatcher dialogue. There was no sign of political progress in Northern Ireland. In early July, a proposal by Humphrey Atkins, the Northern Ireland secretary of state, to establish an advisory committee made up of 50 elected representatives to help govern Northern Ireland, failed to gain any traction.

It was at a meeting with the home secretary, foreign secretary and Northern Ireland secretary on March 19th, that Thatcher that first expressed “some concern” that Anglo-Irish talks were “moving faster than she had originally contemplated”. In particular, she suggested “some of the phraseology which had come up was particularly worrying”.

Rather than establishing a “council” to formalise co-operation between the two governments, for example, Thatcher recommended the more anodyne “committee”. She feared Haughey “would certainly exaggerate the significance of whatever was achieved”.

She also expressed her preference for the term “UK-Irish” co-operation rather than “Anglo-Irish” co-operation.

When Thatcher was made aware of Irish requests for more written communication, she jotted “careful!” in her trademark blue fountain pen. Acting on these instructions, her cabinet secretary, Sir Robert Armstrong, reported that the first round of meetings in March had so far been “thoughtful and constructive”, though the Irish had to be “slapped down on a few matters”. The prime minister was reassured that officials “had been instructed to keep to the cautious line agreed upon”.

There were to be three aims in the British approach to dealing with Dublin: first, to “keep up the pressure on points where the Irish are on the defensive” (such as the extradition of IRA suspects); second, to keep the joint studies in “sufficient motion” to encourage Haughey to continue with them; and third, to make them “long, worthy, meaty and dull”.

One area where officials were allowed more leeway to express themselves was in discussion documents about the “misconceptions” that underlay Anglo-Irish relations. Raising familiar themes, British documents focus on the fact that the Northern Irish Protestant “believes that there is a prejudice in the Republic against Protestants”. As evidence for this, officials pointed to the attitude of the Catholic Church to inter-faith marriage, “the shrinkage of the Protestant community in the South since independence” and “a reluctance to challenge Roman Catholic clerical opinion on matters well outside religious affairs”, such as divorce and contraception. They also complained about the notion that the UK retained Northern Ireland “for quasi-imperial reasons.

Yet Thatcher’s concerns were not allayed. After the third set of meetings between Irish and British officials, which took place in Dublin in May, she reacted furiously to what she saw as “the most alarming set of papers on the UK-Irish situation I have read”. In a handwritten note, she warned that that they would cause such a backlash in Northern Ireland as to “set Anglo-Irish relations back for years” and might even lead to an increase in Protestant paramilitarism.

Chief among her concerns were Irish proposals for an “over-formalised” North-South council, which would be given “prior consideration” on all major political initiatives. “No,” she scribbled in the margins.

“No,” she wrote again, in response to what her officials described as “an excessively detailed and premature blueprint” for an Anglo-Irish parliamentary consultative body, which would make its proceedings public. There was also an emphatic “No” to the suggestion that the North- South council would have powers to sanction expenditure on economic development projects.

Thatcher reacted most angrily to the joint report on citizenship rights, which suggested that Irish citizens living in Northern Ireland be treated in the same way as those in Britain – by being given full voting rights and holding elective office, or sitting in juries.

Rather than attempt to revise or amend the latest Irish draft on co-operation, British officials were instructed to draw up a new document from scratch, with much diluted proposals. Armstrong conceded this “might be interpreted as a clear sign of a significant reduction in the temperature of Anglo-Irish relations” but perhaps “such a shock is necessary” as the Irish “have pushed their luck too far”.

An immediate crisis was averted by the calling of the Irish general election of May 21st. Though Haughey lost, the Foreign Office urged Thatcher to write him a note of condolence as he might be back in power before long, and “in opposition he may be tempted to be less than co-operative on Northern Ireland”.

When Garret FitzGerald, the new taoiseach, and Thatcher spoke by telephone for the first time on July 1st, the hunger strike dominated exchanges. Armstrong warned Thatcher that, while FitzGerald supported the “joint studies”, he bemoaned the “excessive secrecy” around them. As to the possibility that some of the correspondence might now be leaked to the press, Armstrong reassured the prime minister that British officials had “always lived with this possibility” and existing drafts “were carefully bowdlerised with it in mind”.

In sum, it was felt FitzGerald’s approach “may prove unacceptable; but we can only find out by probing forwards; he himself may not last, but we need to keep him in play for the time being”.

On September 2nd, the British embassy in Dublin suggested the new government’s outlook for the next few months was “unsettled, possibly stormy”. FitzGerald had two priorities: ending the H-Block impasse; and passing economic austerity measures through the Dáil with a minuscule majority.

In September, FitzGerald surprised British officials by announcing a “constitutional crusade” to make the Irish state a more attractive proposition to Northern unionists. His intention was to return to the principles of Wolfe Tone and Thomas Davis and remove the “majority ethos” in the Republic.

The proposals were cautiously welcomed at the British embassy, although the ambassador, Sir Leonard Figg, doubted it would make any difference to unionists. Figg also raised the question of “whether the Irish electorate wishes to confront the nitty-gritty which unification would entail”, in economic and political terms.

In a more substantive report by the Foreign Office on September 28th, the crusade was described as “a brave attempt by Dr FitzGerald to change some of the basic premises of the current situation”. Unfortunately, it had been “launched in typical FitzGerald style”. In other words, the proposals “stemmed from his personal convictions; but they were presented in an impetuous and disorganised way”.

Even if it failed, however, officials felt it “confronted the Irish with the need to make far-reaching adjustments to their own society if they ever hope to achieve unification by consent – and that is all to the good”. It would also “make the Republic a more civilised state”.

Armstrong visited FitzGerald in Dublin on October 16th, where the taoiseach reassured him that the discussion of his forthcoming meeting with Thatcher would be “low-key”. FitzGerald also made it clear to Armstrong he took his share of responsibility for any previous misunderstandings that may have occurred between him and Thatcher. Thatcher did not reciprocate this emollient tone, objecting to a scheduled meeting between the taoiseach and her new secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Jim Prior, following IRA bombs in London.

It was not until November 6th that the two premiers finally met in London. Thatcher made it clear to her officials that she would not – as had been her position at her first meeting with Haughey a year before – discuss Northern Ireland.

Thus the year ended as it had begun. British documents for 1981 provide few clues about the origins of the Anglo-Irish Agreement that Thatcher and FitzGerald were to sign four years later, though it is clear that Irish and British officials were co-operating behind the scenes.

By Ed Carty
Irish Examiner
Friday, December 30, 2011

ONE of the top IRA prisoners in the Maze during the hunger strike wanted John Hume to act as an intermediary to end the protest, state papers have revealed.

A priest urged the then SDLP leader to act as go-between and liaise with the British government and inmates on an offer for new jail rules after nine men haddied.

Fr McEldowney, who had unrestricted access to the hunger strikers, said the proposal had come from “a prominent member of the Provisionals in the H- Blocks”.

Brendan “Bik” McFarlane was the officer commanding the IRA prisoners and the most senior republican inmate.

According to a memo to taoiseach Garret FitzGerald dated August 19, 1981, and released under the 30-year rule, Mr Hume told Fr McEldowney he would not take any action unless specifically authorised by McFarlane. He asked the priest to put this to the IRA chief.

The plan, the SDLP leader said, was to ask officials in London to inform himand the Irish government in identical terms what prison reforms were on offer.

Mr Hume said he would tell the hunger strikers the plan directly and confirm it had been passed to the Irish government.

The taoiseach, who had already warned Margaret Thatcher that her attitude to the hunger strike was divisive, urged Mr Hume to be the one to approach the British government with the plan.

The memo was written the day before the tenth death, 27-year-old INLA member Michael Devine from Derry. It would be about six weeks before the strike ended on October 3.

According to documents from files in the taoiseach’s office, the MP for Foyletold the Irish government that Gerry Adams had “sought a conversation with him” on or around May 14 after the death of Francis Hughes, 27, from Bellaghy,south Derry, the second to die.

The Sinn Féin chief told him IRA prisoners would call off the hunger strike if allowed to wear their own clothes and enjoy some free association.

After meeting Margaret Thatcher in London, Mr Hume phoned then taoiseach Charlie Haughey’s office to relay what he had told the British prime minister.

He said prisoners would call off the hunger strike if allowed to wear their own clothes and enjoy some free association.

He also had harsh words for Mrs Thatcher warning her that the Provos “held centre stage” and that she didn’t understand the meaning of Irish nationalism.

Elsewhere, papers confirm Bobby Sands offered to suspend his hunger strike for five days on or around April 30 1981 after meeting Pope John Paul II’s envoy John Magee, the former Bishop of Cloyne.

The offer was conditional on an official from the Northern Ireland Office coming to the Maze to negotiate with prisoners on their five demands in thepresence of “guarantors.”

According to the documents, the Northern Ireland Office would not discuss Sands’ offer.

The NI prisons minister met with protesters’ families and within days the strike was called off

Irish Times
2 Jan 2012

A volley of shots is fired over the coffin of hunger striker Raymond McCreesh who died on May 21st, 1981, during protests at the Maze Prison. (Photograph: Pat Langan)

A SERIES of sensitive meetings between the prisons minister Lord Grey Gowrie and relatives of the remaining hunger strikers in September 1981 played a major role in ending the crisis.

Minutes just released confirm the proactive role played in the ending of the protest by the relatives, the SDLP leader John Hume and Gowrie, a member of an Anglo-Irish family who had just arrived in the North as Jim Prior’s deputy, with responsibility for prisons.

On September 21st, 1981, DJ Wyatt, a Northern Ireland Office official, contacted the secretary of state to say that Hume had seen Mrs McCloskey who had now made up her mind to authorise her son’s [Liam] resuscitation when he reached the point of death.

She was anxious to keep this decision secret because of the pressures from the Provisional IRA and INLA. Hume said that she would like to meet Gowrie and to be accompanied by Mrs Lynch, the mother of the dead hunger striker Kevin Lynch, who herself had fought hard to make her son call off his fast.

Lord Gowrie arranged to meet Mrs McCloskey and Mrs Lynch whose son had died on August 1st. The hour-long meeting took place on September 23rd and the minutes record that “although [the two women] were quite tearful at the start, the meeting proceeded amicably despite the difficult and distressing circumstances”.

Gowrie welcomed both women, expressing his sympathy for their “heartbreaking predicament”. On his recent visit to the prison he had seen Liam who had been asleep at the time. It was tragic that young men “who had such opportunities before them” should lay down their lives with evident but wholly misguided sincerity. Prior and himself wished to promote reconciliation but this process could not realistically begin under the duress of the hunger strike.

Mrs McCloskey said that her son had asked to meet the minister: he did not wish to die but could not go back and face his comrades unless he got “something”.

Only one of the five demands was discussed. Mrs Lynch strongly believed that “own clothing” would have solved the problem two years ago but that it was very difficult now.

Both women said they did not think they had any influence with the hunger strikers’ OC . This was the reason they were appealing to the minister.

This enabled Gowrie to hope that the relatives should help in their way – quite independent of government – to end the strike. He [Gowrie] would see Liam McCloskey once the latter had definitely abandoned his hunger strike.

Towards the end of the meeting Mrs McCloskey – quite unprompted – “left little doubt that she would in fact intervene if and when her son became irrational or unconscious”.

The meeting ended amicably with Mrs Lynch and Mrs McCloskey both thanking the minister. Mrs McCloskey gave Gowrie a small volume of Bobby Sands’s works. This was followed by a further meeting on September 28th, 1981 between Gowrie and the relatives of five of the remaining six hunger strikers, at Stormont Castle.

Gowrie told them that the government would not negotiate over the five demands. However, if the hunger strike did come to an end, he promised that the following things would happen. “First, the government would not claim a large public victory and crow about success. Second, as minister responsible for prisons he had absolute authority to build on and make further improvements to the prison regime for all prisoners. The decision to come off the hunger strike had to be taken by the strikers themselves, but thereafter ministers would try to be helpful.”

This meeting seems critical in the final resolution of the protest. The hunger strike was called off five days later on October 3rd, 1981, and on October 6th the secretary of state announced changes in the prison regime. All prisoners would in future be entitled to wear their own clothes; 50 per cent of lost remission would be restored for conforming prisoners and free association would be permitted within the H-blocks.

Irish Times
2 Jan 2012

ANALYSIS: 1981 turned out to be a watershed year as the Provisional IRA took its first steps towards democratic politics

AT THE end of 1980, staff and ministers in the Northern Ireland Office could have been forgiven for concluding that the Northern Ireland problem was becoming ever more manageable.

By the middle of 1981, however, the region was being convulsed by the worst crisis since the Ulster Workers Council strike of 1974 and relations between London and Dublin were more strained than at any time since 1969.

By the end of the year though – although no one knew it at the time – the first steps had been taken on the long road which would become known as the peace process.

There was no let-up in tit-for- tat violence. On January 16th, the former civil rights activist and MP Bernadette McAliskey and her husband were shot repeatedly by three UDA members in front of their three young children in their Coalisland home. Remarkably, both survived. Ivan Toombs, a part-time major in the Ulster Defence Regiment, shot later in the day by republicans at Warrenpoint Harbour, did not.

On January 21st, Provisionals forced their way into Tynan Abbey in south Armagh and shot dead Sir Norman Stronge, speaker of the Northern commons 1945-1969, and his son James, a former Assembly member. Then they destroyed the Gothic mansion by fire. The Provisional IRA said the attack was a “direct reprisal for a whole series of loyalist assassinations”.

Meanwhile the Rev Ian Paisley and other loyalists had been appalled to learn of “joint studies” between the British and Irish governments to examine the relationship between the two states. He launched a new campaign with the cry: “Stop the joint studies.”

On February 6th, Paisley brought journalists to see 500 men drawn up in military formation on a hill near Ballymena. Soon after, in imitation of the Ulster Covenant of 1912, he announced 11 rallies across Northern Ireland, which he named the “Carson trail”.

Paisley was establishing his claim to be the principal defender of loyalist interests. In the local government elections in May, the DUP vote surpassed for the first time that of the Official Unionists.

The “Carson trail” soon lost its momentum – largely because the media’s attention turned elsewhere. In the republican H-Blocks the long campaign for the restoration of “political status” was racheted up by a new hunger strike, detailed elsewhere in these pages.

On September 14th, in a cabinet reshuffle, James Prior replaced Humphrey Atkins as secretary of state and Lord Gowrie became the prisons minister. Both men were distinctly more flexible than their predecessors. Concessions were hinted at and on October 3rd, the hunger strike was called off.

The IRA renewed its campaign across the Irish Sea. On October 10th, Chelsea Barracks in London was bombed, killing a woman and a man, and injuring 40 others. Maj Gen Sir Stewart Pringle narrowly escaped death when an IRA bomb exploded under his car in London on October 17th. On October 26th, a police explosives expert was killed while trying to defuse a bomb in London’s Oxford Street.

Yet in retrospect, 1981 was a watershed: Provisional Sinn Féin took its first steps towards democratic politics. It had been encouraged by the electoral triumphs of Bobby Sands and then of his election agent, Owen Carron, in the same constituency on August 20th. On August 23rd, Provisional Sinn Féin announced it would in future contest all elections. On September 30th, James McCreesh, father of the second hunger striker to die Raymond McCreesh, easily won a byelection in South Armagh in a straight fight with the SDLP.

NIO official David Blatherwick (later British ambassador to Dublin) commented that the SDLP was “concerned. While republicans have traditionally abstained from elections, PSF have recently acknowledged that only through elections can they hope to smash the SDLP.”

At the Sinn Féin ardfheis in Dublin on November 1st, this seismic shift was famously marked by the party’s director of publicity, Danny Morrison: “Will anyone here object if, with a ballot box in this hand and an Armalite in this hand, we take power in Ireland?”

However, on November 14th, the people of Northern Ireland were given a brutal reminder that the Armalite was not yet being muzzled for the sake of the ballot box. In Finaghy, five Provisionals shot dead the Rev Robert Bradford, Unionist MP for South Belfast, and a caretaker who tried to stop them.

The murders put fresh life into Paisley’s campaign. On November 23rd, Protestants took part in a “day of action” to protest against inadequate security and Paisley organised demonstrations across the region. Up to 15,000 people attended the Newtownards rally.

For 100 US congressmen, the DUP leader’s fiery outbursts were too much: they persuaded their government to revoke Paisley’s US visa on December 21st.

Irish Times
2 Jan 2012

It was a long summer of claims, counterclaims and negotiations to try to bring the IRA hunger strikes to an end

APRIL 1981

WHEN BOBBY Sands became MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone on April 11th, some British officials hoped his election might encourage the IRA to move away from violence and into politics.

Sir Kenneth Stowe, permanent under-secretary of state at the Northern Ireland Office, told cabinet secretary Sir Robert Armstrong that there was “reason to believe that the PIRA have been thinking seriously about an end to the campaign of violence, but feel that they need a success and an avenue to pursue their aims politically”.

As more prisoners joined the hunger strike, however, officials concluded that the IRA was primarily interested in short-term political gain rather than a new departure. On April 29th, with Sands expected to die within a few days, an intelligence assessment suggested that IRA “tactics have been determined on a day-to-day basis to take advantage of opportunities as they occur and it is unlikely that they have any clear policy on what to do next”.

MAY 1981

On May 11th, Dermot Nally, secretary to the Irish government, was visited in Dublin by Sir Robert Armstrong, his British counterpart. Both men agreed that the IRA was not, at that point, interested in an escape route from the strike. “The ‘wild men’ thought they were on to a winner and were determined to pursue their present line as far as possible,” Nally said.

The following day Francis Hughes became the second hunger striker to die. The British embassy in Dublin reported a growing feeling in Ireland that this yet was another instance “when British political sense and acumen are switched off when faced with Irish problems”.

On May 21st, Margaret Thatcher’s principal private secretary Clive Whitmore warned that the deaths of Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O’Hara (an INLA hunger striker) were imminent, after which there was likely to be a three- to four-week hiatus until the next striker would be close to death.

“There was no sign that the Provisional Irish republican leadership, which was controlling the strikes, would let them give up,” he wrote, adding that there was “no doubt that McCreesh’s family, including his brother, who was a priest, had specifically dissuaded him from breaking fast on 16 May.”

On May 26th, Thatcher hosted a high-level meeting with secretary of state Humphrey Atkins, RUC chief constable Jack Hermon and Gen Sir Richard Lawson, the GOC of the British army in Northern Ireland, at Chequers, the prime minister’s country residence.

Both Hermon and Lawson emphasised their fears of the increasing alienation of the Catholic community. “If the government could dispel the impression of inflexibility and could get over instead that its policy was magnanimous and caring, these risks might be reduced,” they suggested.

Thatcher remained “rock solid” against concessions. At the end of May, when her civil servants wrote to the European Commission of Human Rights to reassure it that the government would be prepared to respond to “anything the other party may put forward”, she was furious. “No, no, no!” she wrote in the margins. “This implies that if they moved we would move.”


By June 12th, even Atkins, who had previously shared Thatcher’s hardline position, warned that in the perception of the outside world, “the line between firmness and intransigence is a narrow one”. In a memorandum entitled “The Need for Movement”, he wrote: “We may outface the hunger strikes, but we shall pay a heavy price for doing so.”

According to an intelligence- based analysis dated June 16th, some officials had previously believed that a consequence of increasing involvement in electoral politics by the Provisionals “might be a reduction in the amount of energy they put into their terrorist campaign”.

Now it was feared that “the Provisionals ‘gone political’ can succeed, where their terrorist activity has failed, in reversing the progress of recent years towards ‘normality’ and renewing for them a base from which a revitalised terrorist campaign could be launched”. As the hunger strike continued into mid-June, both the British and Irish governments became increasingly convinced that the hunger strikers were “pawns” in the strategy of the IRA leadership.


On June 18th, 1981, senior Irish civil servant Dermot Nally called Downing Street on behalf of Charles Haughey to report that “there is at present some tension in relations between the parents of the hunger strikers, the hunger strikers themselves and the Provisional IRA controllers outside, which could be exploited”.

On June 23rd, 1981, the Irish ambassador in London, Eamon Kennedy, went to Downing Street to personally submit a letter from the taoiseach urging “another initiative”, on the back of a recent statement by Irish bishops criticising the strike.

Thatcher responded by telling Kennedy that while she welcomed the church’s intervention, the IRA was “in the hands of left-wing extremists who were not greatly interested in the views of the church” and “it was not easy to see what HMG could do”.

On June 25th, Nally called Downing Street again to suggest that “there is significant room for manoeuvre”.

Sir Robert Armstrong, the cabinet secretary, also believed that the IRA leadership might be amenable to a settlement. Although they had gained in terms of propaganda, “they must be apprehensive lest, if the succession of deaths is resumed, public opinion could swing against them and they might lose what they have gained”.

When Nally called back the next day, he told Armstrong “it was now a question of ‘percentages’”. Some “slight movement – not a major step”, might bring a resolution to the stand-off between the government and the prisoners.

Towards the end of June, the British government began tentative discussions with the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace (ICJP), a body set up by the Catholic Bishops Conference, which had made proposals for improvements in conditions in the Maze Prison.

Following these discussions, in a policy statement on June 30th, Atkins stated that changes in work, clothing and association might be possible, while reiterating the government’s bottom line that political status would not be considered and that the prison authorities must retain full control of the H-Blocks.

JULY 1981

On July 1st, new taoiseach Garret FitzGerald once again informed the British that there were strong indications that the prisoners themselves wanted a deal.

The following day, Atkins told a cabinet meeting that the Provisional leadership felt under pressure from a “combination of signs of weakening resolve among some of the hunger strikers, a desire among moderate Catholics to see a reasonable settlement related to the ICJP’s proposals, and a reaction to manipulation of the families”.

On Saturday July 4th, Atkins publicly raised the prospect of “general improvements” being made in prison conditions, while insisting that the government would not act “under duress”. In other words, the strike had to end before any changes were implemented.

The same day, a statement was telephoned to the NIO (Northern Ireland Office) on behalf of the prisoners which recognised “that not all five demands would be achieved”. The IRA however still required “firm guarantees” by the British government “before the prisoners considered a ‘move’.”

The statement insisted there was no discrepancy between the prisoners’ position and that of the outside leadership, although British officials did not believe this to be true.

At this point, the IRA leadership made direct contact with the British government through an established “channel of communication” which had been used at previous points in the 1970s. That channel is presumed to have run from Derry businessman Brendan Duddy and MI6 officer Michael Oatley. In this batch of British state papers, the figure believed to be Duddy is referred to as “Soon” or “the channel”.

According to Soon, the July 4th statement by the hunger strikers was “issued independently by the prisoners in the Maze and the timing came as a surprise to senior Provisionals outside”. Although “the content did represent what was previously agreed”, Soon said it had “caught the Provisionals unaware”, with the leadership “dispersed”.

Nonetheless, Soon was “optimistic” that the basis for a deal was in place. This would involve an end to the hunger strike, followed by immediate concessions on clothing (prisoners would be allowed to wear their own) and parcels and visits, to give the IRA a “face-saving way out”. The issues of work and association would be dealt with shortly afterwards.

When Soon called back on July 5th, he said the Provisionals did not like the ICJP acting as a “mediator” and took a “destructive” view of its proposals. They were also suspicious of the fact that the British had not contacted them directly if they were serious about a deal. In reply, the British stated that, when it came to “the channel”, they “had only ever initiated calls in response to queries for clarification”.

Soon said that Danny Morrison, Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams were the only individuals of sufficient clout to offer the “persuasion, education and knowledge” to push through any deal. The British made special arrangements for Morrison to be allowed to enter the Maze to talk to the prisoners directly, although they rejected a request that McGuinness be allowed to join the delegation.

(Morrison has challenged the British account of these events, as reported in The Irish Times of last Saturday, December 31st, on page five, headline “McCreesh family deny British claim”.)

Soon also said he had managed to convince the IRA leadership that the government was “not interested in any settlement unless the hunger strike is called off first” and was “fairly confident that this was acceptable”.

At 11pm on July 5th, however, things seemed to turn for the worst. Morrison had returned from his visit to the prison with a series of “alarming reports”.

According to Soon, the situation “was now so bad that the possibility of any settlement was seriously in doubt”. There was “a complete feeling of hostility among the prisoners towards the ICJP . . . [which] had created an alarmist view of the sincerity of HMG, and every type of neurosis imaginable was surfacing within the Provisional leadership”.

“From an apparently enthusiastic position,” according to a summary of the conversation, “Soon had been called into an angry and hostile meeting of the Provisionals almost verging on a complete breakdown”.

There were “many incoherent abuses aimed at the Soon channel, with the implication that the time spent in discussion on the Soon channel had been a front by HMG to enable the ICJP to manoeuvre the prisoners into an impossible position”.

At 1am on July 6th, Soon rang back to convey the agreed position of the IRA leadership, which was that the prisoners’ statement was the only basis for a successful deal and that they insisted that they were given a draft response by the government before they called off the strike.

It was only at this point that Thatcher was told by Atkins that in conjunction with the ICJP efforts, the government had been “approached by a third party who is trusted by the Provisional leadership”.

He made it clear that “no negotiations have been taking place but it is obviously only sensible that if the Provisional leadership wish to communicate something to us indirectly about this critical problem, we should listen”. Their views were “important because so far they seem to be largely in control of the strikers”.

Meanwhile, other British officials reported that there were “indications that the PIRA leadership are concerned that one or other of the prisoners might give up; and also that the work of the ICJP might put them in a humiliating position”. They were also worried that “more pressure from the families” might tip things in the government’s favour.

On July 6th, Thatcher approved a message to be sent through “the channel” which outlined the terms of a deal. The clothing regime in Armagh prison would be applied to all prisons in Northern Ireland (allowing prisoners to wear their own clothes), restrictions on parcels, visits and letters would be lifted and there was “scope for yet further developments” on work and remission.

If there was a “satisfactory” response, the government was prepared to provide the Provisionals with an advanced text of the arrangement.

On July 7th, following a high- level meeting at Downing Street, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland told the prime minister: “Following the sending of the message which you approved last night, we have received, as you will know, an unsatisfactory response. That channel of activity is therefore no longer active.”

The Provisionals, he reported, “did not regard it as satisfactory and that they wanted a good deal more. This appeared to mark the end of this development and we made this clear to the PIRA.”

In a dramatic twist, however, just after midnight on July 8th, Atkins met Thatcher again to inform her that – following the shutting down of the channel – the IRA had told the government that it was “not the content of the message to which they had objected but only its tone”.

It had also hinted that a slightly revised statement “would be enough to get the PIRA to instruct the prisoners to call off the hunger strike”. For the moment, Atkins recommended that the government hold firm to its position (although another deal was to be offered 10 days later)

Later that day, however, public recriminations began as it became clear that the expected deal had not materialised. The ICJP accused the NIO of clawing back on previous offers and the British government became increasingly concerned about its international reputation.

On July 14th, a foreign office minister suggested that the only way to prevent any more deaths was to feed the prisoners intravenously, against their will. If this option was taken, the prison authorities would also have to restrict visitors because “any relatives and priests allowed in may well be fanatical enough to wrench out the drip and smash the equipment”.

The same day, the foreign secretary Lord Carrington raised the prospect of “force feeding” in a meeting at Downing Street because of the damage being done to Britain’s international reputation by the deaths. Others suggested surreptitiously inserting glucose into the water provided to those fasting.


Another document in the prime ministerial files, dated July 18th, reveals that the British made one last attempt to revive the deal. NIO officials confirmed that they offered the same deal but with “fuller words” and it was passed through “the channel” again. Once again, when a satisfactory response was not forthcoming, the channel was shut down.

At midnight on July 19th, however, FitzGerald called Downing Street to suggest that there might be an opportunity to “persuade the prisoners to overrule” Brendan McFarlane, the IRA leader in the H-Block, who was now seen as an obstacle to the settlement.

On July 19th, the priest of Kevin Lynch (an INLA hunger striker), told British officials that the relatives of Lynch and Kieran Doherty wanted an NIO official “to clarify the government’s position to Lynch and Doherty respectively, on the same basis as before – ie without McFarlane present”.

At this point, however, the strikers themselves seemed to have intervened and said they wanted McFarlane present. According to prison authorities, Lynch had previously stated that he did not want McFarlane there.

On July 21st, officials finally concluded that the Provisionals “are not prepared to accept our position about prison conditions”.

Intriguingly, they also claimed that “we have a clear acknowledgement from McFarlane (which we are already making use of) that the hunger strikers have no power to give up”, although they did not elaborate further.

On July 30th, Atkins noted that “external pressures from the families, from interested priests, from others concerned about the situation – will now be focused on Brendan MacFarlane as the ‘hard man’ who is apparently discouraging the hunger strikers from ending their fast”.

The following day, July 31st, is usually seen as the day in which the hunger strike began to break, after Paddy Quinn’s mother insisted on medical intervention to save his life, although there were to be four more deaths before the strike officially ended in the first week of October.

Irish Times
2 Jan 2012

THE ANGER and frustration of SDLP leader John Hume at the continuing inflexibility of the British prime minister towards the Republican hunger strike, despite the deaths to date of nine strikers, erupted at a tense meeting with the Northern Ireland secretary of state, Humphrey Atkins, at Stormont Castle on August 10th, 1981. The ninth hunger striker, Tom McElwee, had died two days earlier while the final striker, Michael Devine of the INLA, would die on August 20th.

During an almost three-hour meeting the SDLP leader expressed his anxiety about the political situation caused by the continuing hunger strike. He stressed that for 10 years the SDLP had provided an alternative to violence.

There had, however, been a political vacuum since the collapse of the powersharing executive in 1974. Britain now treated the SDLP with contempt, as a result of which its role as a serious party was being undermined. In Hume’s view, the continuing hunger strike had caused widespread bitterness which would erupt in due course. As a result, those who sought peaceful development were being weakened.

This atmosphere was much more serious than the hunger strike itself. He believed that Provisional Sinn Féin would run a candidate in each constituency in the Republic in the next general election which he expected they would precipitate by causing their only remaining H Block TD (Agnew) to resign. They might succeed in having 10 candidates elected to the Dáil, thereby holding the balance of power. PIRA believed that for the first time in a long period it had won young people away from the moderates.

Turning to policing, Hume said the RUC was not widely accepted in the minority community. “The failure of Catholics to join the RUC was a fact of life which would remain until there was a political development.” For his part, he believed the British government should consider declaring Northern Ireland “an area of shared sovereignty which could be administered by joint commissions”. The British government had extensive leverage on Protestant opinion which it could exercise without withdrawing financial or other support.

Returning to the hunger strike, Hume believed it could have been solved before. The involvement of the prime minister had been unfortunate, both because of the attitude she adopted and because no higher authority now remained to whom matters could be put for a final resolution.

Hume had met relatives of the hunger strikers and, at their request, two leading Belfast Provisionals who said they were ready for him to try to bring about a settlement.

The PIRA leaders had told him they wanted the dispute solved and that there was a gulf developing between them and the prisoners; they could be seen to call the hunger strike off only at the risk of causing strife within their own movement. It was essential to bring the matter to a close both because of its intrinsic seriousness and because of its wider effect on attitudes. He believed that “in the end there would have to be an amnesty for terrorist offenders, although he would not say so publicly as it would encourage the PIRA to continue their campaign”.

Atkins emphasised that he too wished to see an early end to the hunger strike but the government would not negotiate. Nor could he agree to Humes suggestion of joint sovereignty.

Irish Times
21 Dec 2011

HUNGER STRIKES: THE BRITISH government gave active behind-the-scenes encouragement to efforts by then taoiseach Charles Haughey to involve the European Commission of Human Rights in resolving the 1981 hunger strike at the Maze Prison, Long Kesh.

Files in the National Archives reinforce Haughey’s contention at the time that the British government was looking for an opening to a settlement and the only route was through a complaint to the commission.

He persuaded Marcella Sands, a sister of the hunger striker, to make an application to the commission on April 23rd, 1981, complaining about the way Sands was being treated in prison.

The following day the British ambassador to Ireland, Leonard Figg, called into the department of the taoiseach with a typewritten message from his government.

The message stated, in part: “We would not oppose an intervention by the European Commission for Human Rights provided that the commission’s involvement is brought about in the only way in which it can be brought about with the willing participation of HMG , namely by accepting and responding to a complaint made from one of the hunger strikers.”

When it was pointed out to Figg that the complaint was being made by a sister of Bobby Sands, he replied that “this would not create any problems”.

The British message went on to say that London would facilitate a visit by the commission to the Maze Prison, given the “exceptional circumstances”.

The following day two commissioners tried to visit Sands in prison for a private meeting, but the hunger striker, through his lawyer, the late Pat Finucane, refused to see them unless his fellow prisoner Brendan “Bik” McFarlane, as well as Gerry Adams and Danny Morrison from Sinn Féin, were also in attendance.

This was not acceptable and on May 4th, the day before his death, the commission announced it had no power to proceed with the case.

A handwritten memo by a department of the taoiseach official dated April 27th, just eight days before Sands died, describes a further visit from the diplomat.

The ambassador referred in positive terms to the “joint studies” between the two governments agreed by Haughey and prime minister Margaret Thatcher at their summit meeting in Dublin the previous December.

Figg regarded the joint studies as an important counterweight to the anti-British feeling likely to arise if and when Sands died.

He also mentioned the application by Marcella Sands: “The only points he made were – 1) that in the event that Sands dies and there is public unrest, it will be more important than ever to pursue the joint studies; 2) that it was a great pity that the initiative with the Commission of Human Rights had not succeeded: he did not see how it could now be revived in the Sands case, but a similar initiative might have a better chance of working in the case of other hunger strikers.”

In his reply to the ambassador, the official indicated that the joint studies could be in jeopardy if Bobby Sands died.

“I said we were not looking beyond the Sands case at present and asked whether he saw any possibility of a solution.

“The ambassador was quite clear that there is no change in his government’s position and that there is no room for concessions which might solve the problem.”

News Letter
30 December 2011

LEADING SDLP figures were privately “dismayed” by the party’s refusal to contest the Fermanagh/South Tyrone by-election which led to Bobby Sands’ election as MP, files released in Belfast reveal.

Some senior SDLP members were also unhappy at leader John Hume’s “apparently ambiguous public stand” on the hunger strikes up until they were almost over, according to one note.

The confidential memorandum dated October 2, 1981, deals with the SDLP’s heavy defeat to the father of dead hunger striker Raymond McCreesh in a south Armagh council by-election months after Sinn Fein first entered electoral politics.

The paper, written by senior NIO official David Blatherwick, said that the SDLP were fearful that Sinn Fein, “baffled by the hunger strike stalemate and encouraged by the gains anti-SDLP republicans made in the May local elections and in Fermanagh/South Tyrone, may decide to continue down the electoral path, to the SDLP’s cost”.

Tellingly, the note adds: “Several leading members of the SDLP (in particular, Eddie McGrady, the chief whip, and Austin Currie), while acknowledging the great pressure of opinion during the early summer in favour of the hunger strikers and their supporters, were dismayed at the party’s failure to contest the Fermanagh/South Tyrone by-election and at the apparently ambiguous public stand taken by Hume until last month on the H-Block issue. They were concerned at the apparent growth of republican fervour among party members.”

Mr Blatherwick said Mr Hume’s position had been hard to define but that earlier in the summer of 1981 he was “certainly afraid that under the stress of the hunger strike his party might break up or lose out to the greener parties entirely”.

News Letter
30 December 2011 10:27

IN public, unionist leaders expressed fury at the government’s decision to relax the regime at the Maze Prison in the immediate aftermath of the hunger strike.

However, files released in Belfast cast doubt on the publicly-stated unhappiness of the DUP and UUP to the government’s concessions on clothing and association.

A restricted draft NIO political review for the period September 28 to October 11, 1981, says that the government’s concessions to prisoners at the end of the hunger strike had led to public fury not only from Ian Paisley but also from Jim Molyneaux.

But it added: “However, in private there has been little suggestion from unionist politicians that the prison changes are an issue on which they will go to the wall, and many observers discounted Paisley’s reaction as a predictable act of expediency.”

Another document which deals with the fallout from the end of the hunger strikes suggests that the situation quickly improved after the hunger strike ended.

A note of a meeting between John Patten (seemingly NIO) and Roman Catholic cardinal Tomas O Fiaich on December 4, 1981, said that the Catholic leader “seemed in general better disposed towards HMG”.

“He told me that from what he had been told, the atmosphere in the prison seemed to have improved ‘beyond all recognition’ and that HMG appeared to him to have ‘kept its side of the bargain as far as he knew’.

“The cardinal had heard favourable reports that the prison authorities were showing flexibility in applying the rules on, for instance, association between wings.

“But he was concerned that there were still a number of protesting prisoners and he hoped that HMG might be able to show more ‘low key flexibility’ in applying the rules which would progressively wean the protesters off their protest.

“The cardinal also said that he did not think that the hunger strike could be used as a weapon again.”

News Letter
Friday 30 December 2011

Cell Number Eight in the Prison Hospital at the Maze/Long Kesh site near Lisburn where IRA Hunger stiker Bobby Sands died in 1981. (PA Photo)

IRA leaders including Martin McGuinness rejected a secret British offer to end the hunger strikes in July 1981 before the final six deaths, it can be revealed.

Files released today under the 30-year rule show that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher authorised secret negotiations with the IRA.

At the time, republicans portrayed Mrs Thatcher as unbending and their claim that she “murdered” the hunger strikers led to her becoming a hate figure to many nationalists.

But the revelation that she secretly made an offer – almost identical to that accepted by republicans months later – which could have saved six prisoners’ lives will heap fresh pressure on the leadership of Sinn Fein.

As recently as 2009, Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarland, the IRA leader in the prison, claimed that “there was never any deal” with the government.

Other files released today show that British officials were convinced that the IRA leadership outside the prison was controlling the prisoners, despite Sinn Fein claims that the prisoners’ decision to die was entirely their own.

But despite the revelations, several sections of the hunger strike files released in Belfast have been blacked out or removed.

In public, Mrs Thatcher insisted she would not bow to the demands of republican prisoners held in Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison for so-called “political status” after Bobby Sands started a hunger strike on March 1.

However, files released by the National Archives in Kew, west London, show how her government sent messages to the IRA leadership through a secret intermediary, promising concessions if the hunger strikes were called off.

Though supported by many unionists in Northern Ireland, the government’s perceived intransigence drew widespread international condemnation and by the beginning of July, the pressure on the prime minister was intense.

Four hunger strikers had died and, before his death, 27-year-old Sands had secured a propaganda coup, winning election as an MP after standing in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election.

But, when the remaining hunger strikers issued a statement dropping their demand to be treated as “prisoners of war”, Mrs Thatcher authorised a message to be sent setting out the concessions the government would make if the strikes were ended.

The go-between who relayed the message to the leadership of the Provisional IRA is identified in the National Archives files only by the codename ‘Soon’.

He has, however, been named previously as Brendan Duddy, a Londonderry businessman who for more than 20 years acted as a secret intermediary between the government and the IRA through his contacts with MI6 officer Michael Oatley.

The files 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.

Soon used his contacts to arrange for leading republican Danny Morrison to visit the prisoners in the Maze to explain what was happening – without referring to the secret back channel.

The negotiations – which also involved the now Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness – were clearly fraught.

At one point, the IRA men told Soon the British were being “insincere”. Soon retorted that “unless that belief was totally dispelled, he was going on holiday”.

The log noted: “The strength of his reply had, he said, won the day.”

In the final call, timed at 1am on July 6, Soon spelt out the precise choreography that would be necessary to bring the strike to an end.

“When HMG produces such a draft proposal it is essential [last word underlined] that a copy be in the Provisionals’ hands before it is made public,” Soon told MI6.

“This is to enable the Provisionals either to approve it or to point out any difficulties before publication. If it were published without prior sight and agreement they would have to disapprove it.”

Soon added that the situation would be “irreparably damaged” if another hunger striker died and urged the government to “act with the utmost haste”.

In London, ministers and officials prepared their response, setting out the concessions the government was to offer “if, but only if, it would lead to the immediate end of the hunger strike”.

They included allowing the prisoners to wear their own clothes, rather than prison uniform, and to receive normal visits, parcels and letters as well as “further developments” on prison work and remission.

Mrs Thatcher clearly took a close interest in the process. The draft message in the files includes a series of detailed amendments, apparently in her handwriting.

The message ended: “If the reply we receive is unsatisfactory and there is subsequently any public reference to this exchange we shall deny that it took place. Silence will be taken as an unsatisfactory reply.”

Despite the careful build-up and the apparent concession to the key IRA demands, the approach was rebuffed. The following day, a fifth hunger striker, Joe McDonnell, died.

Northern Ireland Secretary of State Humphrey Atkins informed Mrs Thatcher: “Following the sending of the message which you approved last night, we have received, as you will know, an unsatisfactory response. That particular channel of activity is therefore now no longer active.”

Nevertheless, the government then made a second attempt to break the deadlock. Mr Atkins’ office told No 10 they had used Soon to repeat “what was in essence the message sent on July 7”.

“Although the channel was very free with his own advice, he had nothing acceptable to say about the attitude of the Provisionals and at about 1900 hours on July 20 the secretary of state gave us instructions that the channel should be closed,” the note said.

The hunger strikes were to carry on for another three months, during which five more prisoners died.

Irish Times
31 Dec 2011

ANALYSIS: THE FINE Gael-Labour government of 1981 was in “real danger of getting too close to the IRA” on the Maze hunger strike, the country’s top civil servant warned as the prison fast entered its 20th week.

Secretary to the government Dermot Nally told taoiseach Garret FitzGerald in a strongly worded memo that, in the news media, “our demands are becoming indistinguishable from theirs”.

This posed “real and urgent dangers” because paramilitary prisoners in the South might join the protest: “What do we do if Portlaoise [prison] erupts?”

Nally warned against making public criticism of the British government’s approach. Despite the urgency of the hunger strike situation, there were “larger issues” involved and a major rift between the two governments would cause long-term damage to both countries.

The revealing memo by the late civil servant was written on July 21st, 1981, three days after a major riot outside the British embassy in Ballsbridge, where 200 people, including 120 gardaí, were injured.

He was commenting on a two- page appeal to the taoiseach from government press secretary and former RTÉ broadcaster, the late Liam Hourican, also on July 21st.

With hunger striker and abstentionist TD Kieran Doherty approaching death, Hourican argued for a public critique of the British government for failing to heed advice from Dublin on how to deal with the dispute.

He called for “a strong, unapologetic assertion of the rightness of our point of view, and the error of the British position”.

The document has come to light in newly declassified files. The Nally memo is typed on the second page of Hourican’s message as a commentary and is addressed directly to FitzGerald. Nally writes: “I believe there is a real danger of getting too close to the IRA on all this. Our demands are becoming indistinguishable from theirs – in the public press.

“There are real and urgent dangers for us in this identification. What do we do if Portlaoise [prison] erupts?

“Whatever we may think about them, the British are nearer the ground in dealing with the strike. They have their faults and undeniably made mistakes.

“But we should not compound them by trying to say what exactly they should or should not do.

“Our advice must always be based on second-hand information and cannot be tactical – only strategic.

“Though it may seem irrelevant at this point, there are larger issues, and any mistakes of emphasis made by us in relation to the hunger strike can endanger relations – just as much as mistakes made by them – to the ultimate loss of both countries.”

In a separate internal memo dated July 24th, senior Irish official DM Neligan complains about the paucity of information coming from the British side:

“From time to time since the hunger strikes began we have confirmed to the British the importance of keeping us informed about developments.

“We have made the point that the government here is arguably under more pressure on the subject of the hunger strike than the British government, and have asked for a full and rapid flow of information.

“They do give us some account of developments, notably in regard to the decline and death of hunger strikers. However, it is in general the case that not much other information reaches us spontaneously, and we generally have to look for it.”

Recalling this period in his 1991 autobiography All in a Life , FitzGerald writes of how the Irish support for the mediation efforts of the Catholic hierarchy’s Commission for Justice and Peace was frustrated by a “ham-fisted” British government decision to enter direct behind-the-scenes negotiations with the IRA.

Bobby Sands mural photo
Ní neart go cur le chéile


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