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As most of you know, today marks the 33rd anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands on hunger strike. I had a reader ask if he might post his poem on my sites for Bobby, and I also noticed that Carrie Twomey posted her own poem on The Pensive Quill, so I would like to link you to both poems:
• The Source of Our Anger by Carrie Twomey
• Sands on the River Road by Ron Lay-Sleeper
Ron’s poem can be found on any of the four sites devoted to Bobby.
Tom Deignan – Sidewalks
7 June 2012
The year was 1981. It was early May, the weather was turning warm, and the New York Yankees were on their way to another World Series – though not before Major League Baseball players went on strike, resulting in a short, strange season.
On May 5, 1981, Irish New Yorkers poured out into the streets when news came out of Belfast that Republican hunger striker Bobby Sands had died. An estimated 10,000 people closed off several blocks in Manhattan near the British consulate.
On the waterfront, longshoremen called for a one day boycott of British shipping, while others proposed a national boycott of British Airways. Finally, Transit Workers Union head John Lawe called for members to drive with headlights on all day to acknowledge Sands’ death.
In these days of Occupy Wall Street and gay marriage, protest and the change it spurs is very much in the news. So much so that the Museum of the City of New York recently opened a new exhibit called “Activist New York.”
The exhibit, according to organizers, “explores the drama of social activism in New York City from the 17th century right up to the present. In a town renowned for its in-your-face persona, citizens of the city have banded together on issues as diverse as historic preservation, civil rights, wages, sexual orientation and religious freedom.”
The issues the exhibit explores are undoubtedly important. But it would have certainly added an interesting dynamic to the exhibit if it also explored the way various immigrants have championed their national causes and the way ethnic enclaves around New York responded.
Needless to say, Irish New York rabble rousers have had their share of moments in the “Activist New York” spotlight.
There was, of course, the moment when Sands’ death shed light on the problem of The Troubles in the North. That was at the start of the 1980s.
By the end of that turbulent decade, a Belfast fellow named Joseph Patrick Thomas Doherty — and his many supporters –made Northern Ireland an important issue in the 1989 race to be New York City mayor.
Doherty was arrested while working at a Manhattan bar, accused of serving as an active IRA soldier.
The British wanted him returned to the U.K., and while serving as U.S. attorney in charge of the case, Rudy Giuliani earned many enemies in the Irish community.
That Northern Ireland would become a flashpoint in the 1989 race for New York mayor was unlikely, to say the least. That year, crime and racial tension were spiraling out of control.
David Dinkins was aiming to become New York’s first African American mayor. And yet, both Dinkins and his opponent Giuliani were forced to have “full-fledged policies about the former Irish Republican Army guerrilla,” The New York Times reported at the time, adding that “the ‘Doherty issue’ … could sway votes in the mayoral election.”
This, of course, was a testament to Irish organizers harnessing the network of Irish American support across the five boroughs.
Then again, perhaps this should be no surprise because the Irish have been loud and proud members of “Activist New York” for decades.
Many Irish New Yorkers were fierce in their support for the 1916 Easter Rising, and nationalist rallies in venues such as Madison Square Garden attracted upwards of 20,000 Irish American supporters.
Visits by the likes of Eamon de Valera were also popular – and controversial.
After all, during the World War I era, many criticized the notion of “hyphenated Americans” who could feel loyalty for both Ireland and the U.S.
After World War I, Irish-born activists in New York used their political skills to found the Transit Workers Union.
The Irish are a particularly interesting study in activism because subsequent visits by nationalist leaders – think Bernadette Devlin in the late 1960s – rallied support in some parts of the Irish American community, but also alienated many others.
So, if you go to visit “Activist New York” at the Museum of the City of New York, realize that it tells a good story. But it is only part of the story.
(Contact “Sidewalks” at email@example.com or facebook.com/tomdeignan)
6 May 2012
OFFICER COMMANDING IRA political prisoners, H-Blocks, Long Kesh. Born 9th March 1954, died 5th May 1981 after 66 days on hunger strike for the restoration of political status.
Twenty-seven-year-old Bobby Sands, after enduring years of solitary confinement and beatings, led the 1981 Hunger Strike, during which he was elected as MP for the constituency of Fermanagh & South Tyrone.
Bobby became an international figure whom to this day continues to inspire
Bobby became an international figure who to this day continues to inspire not just Irish republicans in their pursuit of freedom from British rule but people around the world struggling for their rights.
ConorBobbyThere were white-line pickets, vigils and events held across republican areas of Belfast, in Dublin and other places yesterday in memory of Bobby Sands, who died 31 years ago.
Events over the weekend included a parade in Tyrone by Dromore Memorial Committee. In 1981, Dromore was then part of the constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone which elected Bobby as its Member of Parliament that April when he was 40 days on his hunger strike.
On Sunday night in the Andersonstown Social Club, prominent republican Gerry Kelly (himself a former hunger striker) will be giving the annual Bobby Sands Lecture.
Also on Sunday night, in the Felons’ Club, there will be another opportunity to see ‘1981’, a drama written and performed by Tony Devlin and produced by Brassneck Theatre Company. The play starts at 8pm.
Deaglán de Bréadún
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.
By Ed Carty
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.
Nearly every media outlet in the world had an opinion on Bobby Sands, the hunger strikes, the situation in the North and the British response. And most media were not on the side of Margaret Thatcher, writes Ryle Dwyer
By Ryle Dwyer
December 30, 2011
THE DEATH of Bobby Sands received saturation media coverage in the US, on radio, TV and the front and editorial pages of newspapers across the country. It was reminiscent of the 1969-1972 period; only this time there was more analysis and commentary on the political situation.
The New York Times had been critical of British policy on the North before, but not with the vehemence shown following the death of Sands. “Mrs Thatcher has allowed the initiative to pass to a miniscule army of implacable nationalists,” it complained in an editorial. “By appearing unfeeling and unresponsive she and her Government are providing Bobby Sands with a deathbed gift — the crown of martyrdom.”
Most of the informed comment was supplied by editorial writers and syndicated columnists. Regular columnists who wrote about Irish events were generally critical of both the IRA and the British prime minister. “Mrs Thatcher must be made to yield,” Michael Kilian wrote. “The veto power she gave the Protestants over any change in Northern Ireland’s status must be withdrawn.”
There were 13 US daily newspapers with a circulation of more than 500,000 and 100 others with circulation above 100,000. Most editorialised on the North following Sands’s death. The editorials concentrated on four areas: (i) the deaths were tragic but would not contribute to a solution; (ii) the British government could not grant political status to terrorists; (iii) Thatcher should be criticised for her handling of the affair and her lack of imagination; and (iv) London and Dublin should speed up their talks and the Protestant veto in the North should be removed.
The New York Times and New York Daily News both suggested that Thatcher should take a bold new approach in relation to Ireland. The only New York newspaper that came out strongly in her favour was the Wall Street Journal, which concluded that the initial decision to grant special category status was the real mistake.
The Chicago Tribune, on the other hand, lamented the potential for catastrophe. “Much of the blame for this can be laid on Prime Minister Thatcher and her obdurate refusal to work for reform and change. She has bowed to the wishes of Protestant firebrands like the Rev Ian Paisley so much that she almost seems a bit of a Paisleyite herself.”
The attitude was more balanced elsewhere in the US. “It’s a pity that Bobby Sands died,” the San Francisco Examiner wrote in a typical American approach, “but he was deluded if he confused nobility with violence, and thought that the latter could bring his land to a better day.”
There was also heavy coverage in the Canadian media, where the Montreal Gazette was extremely hostile to the prisoners’ case and to Sands in particular. The Toronto Globe and Mail editorialised in tones of general exasperation at the continuing violence.
IN AUSTRALIA, all of the major newspapers carried editorials on the death of Sands. It is most unusual for the regionally dispersed press to show such a degree of unanimity in selecting an editorial topic.
Many papers strongly opposed the granting of political status. Others skirted the issue. Almost all felt that there was room for flexibility and they were therefore critical of the British record in the North.
“The death of Sands will no doubt tilt the balance of emotional feelings against the Government of Mrs Thatcher, but it should be noted that there was a rational basis to its attitude,” the Adelaide Advertiser remarked. “It is completely unrealistic to identify as common criminals Irish nationalists fighting for what they regard, with some reason, as a just cause.”
The general trust of such editorials was significant because the Australian press had traditionally been very loyal to Britain. This time, however, there was a distinct edge to the criticism of British intransigence.
There was also extensive press coverage in Europe, especially in France and Germany. German editorials were either non-committal or supported the refusal to grant political status. The French press — from the conservative Le Figero and the Catholic La Croix to the independent Le Monde — were very critical of British inflexibility. The influential left-wing weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, which strongly supported President Francois Mitterand carried a long article virtually reproducing the Provo line.
In Italy, despite their ideological differences, the major left- and right-wing dailies adopted a generally uniform approach in which Mrs Thatcher and her government were characterised as “inflexible, unsympathetic and unimaginative”.
Editorial opinion in Britain was unusually uniform across both the political spectrum and within the divide between “quality” and tabloid newspapers. All favoured the British government’s position in refusing political status and rejecting the demands for what amounted to political status.
The hunger strike was seen as a cynical and sinister propaganda device.” Even The Guardian — which had been critical of the British position in relation to the “dirty protest” — changed its attitude before Sands died. When he did die, it described the Government’s policy as “correct”, although it added that Mrs Thatcher’s “posture” had been disdainful and unhelpful to the taoiseach, Charles Haughey.
In the face of the attitude of the British press, it would actually have been more difficult for Thatcher to concede to the hunger strikers.
DEAGLÁN de BRÉADÚN
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.”
By Ryle Dwyer
Friday, December 30, 2011
The 1981 hunger strike resulted in a showdown between Margaret Thatcher and Ireland’s politicians, but ultimately in the deaths of 10 prisoners, writes Ryle Dwyer
PROTESTS by Republican prisoners began in the Maze and Armagh women’s prison in September 1976 when the first prisoners were convicted after the March 1976 decision to phase out special category status.
The prisoners refused to do prison work or wear prison clothes. They wore only blankets, and this became known as the blanket protest. In March 1978, the dispute escalated into the dirty protest when the men began fouling cells with their own excrement.
In October 1980, it was announced that the requirement to wear prison uniforms would be abolished and civilian type clothing would be substituted. The prisoners were not impressed and decided to initiate a hunger strike on October 27, 1980. Initially seven men went on hunger strike in support of five demands for the right: (i) to wear their own clothes; (ii) to refrain from prison work; (iii) to associate freely; (iv) to organise recreational facilities, and to have one letter, visit and parcel per week; and (v) to have lost good-behaviour remission fully restored.
In the aftermath of the much-publicised Haughey/ Thatcher summit at Dublin Castle, prison authorities issued a detailed statement about what would happen after the prisoners ended their protest. Bobby Sands, the leader of the Republican prisoners, announced that this met their five basic demands and the hunger strike was called off on December 18, 1980.
Before long it became apparent that the concessions did not meet the five demands, and on February 5 the prisoners announced a second hunger strike would begin on March 1, 1981. The same day, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland told the House of Commons that the government would not establish “a special set of conditions for particular groups of prisoners”, and it would not concede “political status or recognise that murder and violence are less culpable because they are claimed to be committed for political motives”.
Other prisoners quickly joined Bobby Sands on hunger strike, and the dirty protest was called off. Some 20 prisoners agreed to go on hunger strike, but it was decided that no more than eight would participate at any one time, and others would join after anyone died.
Sands obviously felt responsible for calling off the earlier strike. His plight received enormous international publicity on April 10 when he was elected to the British parliament in a by-election in the Fermanagh-South Tyrone constituency while on the 41st day of his hunger strike.
Fr John Magee, the Pope’s secretary and future Bishop of Cloyne, visited the hunger strikers — Sands, Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh and Patsy O’Hara — unofficially on behalf of the Vatican, but he had no success in persuading them to end their protest. Marcella Sands, the hunger striker’s sister, persuaded the European Commission of Human Rights (ECHR) to visit the Maze, but the hunger strikers refused to meet them.
On May 4, Charles Haughey appealed to ECHR to consider the hunger strike as an issue “of extreme urgency”, but it was too late. Sands died the next day on the 66th day of his hunger strike. His death was followed by the deaths of Hughes the following week and both McCreesh and O’Hara a week later.
The surviving protesters received a further boost when two of the H-Block prisoners were elected to Dáil Éireann on June 11. One of those, Kieran Doherty — who was elected in Cavan/Monaghan — was on the third week of his hunger strike.
In the final days before the new Dáil met, the Haughey government made desperate efforts to influence the British government to try to settle the H-Block issue. The hunger strikes had “generated an entirely new level of support for the IRA among the nationalist community in Northern Ireland”, he warned Margaret Thatcher. “They have already had a substantial impact on political life here as the election of two prisoners here and the relatively large vote for other hunger strike candidates in the recent general election indicates.
“Great Britain is incurring some measure of damage to her own standing on the international scene,” he continued. “There is clearly a widespread upsurge of support for the IRA around the world and particularly in the United States.”
ON JUNE 30, Garret FitzGerald replaced Haughey as Taoiseach at the head of a minority Fine Gael-Labour coalition. Within a week it seemed that the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace (ICJP), set up by the Irish Episcopal Conference, was on the verge of a breakthrough.
On July 6, the ICJP drew up a statement it believed would resolve the issue. The British insisted on two changes. One was agreed, and the British were supposed to read the statement to the hunger strikers the next day, but this was not done, and the whole process collapsed.
The ICJP issued a statement accusing the British of back-tracking, and Irish people found the statement credible. “As a Government, we too are persuaded by this account and so are unable to do or say anything to counter the lack of public confidence in the British government’s handling of the situation,” FitzGerald wrote to Thatcher on June 10. “We are thus faced with the danger of a serious and progressive deterioration in bilateral relations.”
He was particularly concerned about the likely impact of the death of Kieran O’Doherty. “Looking into the immediate future we face the prospect of the death of a hunger striker who is a member of our Parliament,” he warned. “As you know from the case of Mr Sands, the propaganda potential of such a death would be immense, in our society, in Britain and throughout the world.” He urged her to accept the ICJP recommendations.
The Taoiseach was undermined somewhat the next day when the prisoners stated that the ICJP should “forfeit” its role in trying to broker a settlement. They complained the ICJP’s proposals of July 7 were an unacceptable dilution of the five demands.
Thatcher was obviously perturbed by FitzGerald’s remark that the Government was persuaded by the ICJP’s account.
“I do beg of you not to be misled into thinking that this problem is susceptible of any easy solution, wanting only a little flexibility on Her Majesty’s Government’s part. It is not,” she replied. “Of course the regime could be modified in various ways (as it has been already) and we have consistently maintained that we are prepared — once the hunger strike is over — to make yet further improvement on humanitarian grounds.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross also visited and compiled a report, but nothing came of it. Attempts were made to interest the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, but it only met annually and was not due to meet again until 1982.
The hunger strikes continued through the summer of 1981 and into the autumn when the death toll rose to 10. The international media interest faded, and the recrimination spread among prisoners and their supporters, with some questioning the role of the IRA leadership.
On October 3, 1981, the families of the six remaining hunger strikers committed themselves to intervene by requesting they be fed once they lapsed into unconsciousness. Three days later the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland announced prisoners would be allowed to wear their own clothes at all times, and lost remission for conforming prisoners would be increased from 10% to 50%. He added that further changes were possible but he was making no promises. On October 29, 1981 the prisoners formally ended the blanket protest.
A few were still talking of escalating the protest, “but there is little enthusiasm among the mass of the protesting prisoners for further action”, said the Department of Foreign Affairs. “Many remain critical of the IRA’s manipulation of the hunger strike and are enjoying the comparatively relaxed atmosphere that prevails at present.”
DEAGLÁN de BRÉADÚN
31 Dec 2011
Bobby Sands’ son, Robert Gerald, holds his mother’s hand at the funeral of his father in west Belfast, flanked by masked IRA men on May 7th, 1981. A week before his death, Sands told Fr John Magee he would suspend his strike if three conditions were met. (Photograph: Martin Wright/Pacemaker)
IRA HUNGER-STRIKER Bobby Sands rejected a moral directive from pope John Paul II, as head of the Roman Catholic Church, to end his fast, according to State papers issued under the 30-year rule.
A copy of an internal British embassy memo, given to the Department of the Taoiseach by an embassy official on April 29th, 1981, reports a conversation between papal envoy Fr John Magee and secretary of state for Northern Ireland Humphrey Atkins.
The Newry-born cleric, who served as secretary to three popes and went on to become a controversial bishop of Cloyne, gave Atkins an account of his 75-minute meeting with Sands the night before.
The priest said that, during the prison visit a week before the hunger striker died, he had delivered “a personal message from the pope telling Mr Sands that it was his duty to stop”.
The memo continues: “Mr Sands had not responded. However, he had asked Father MacGee to tell Mr Atkins that he would suspend his strike for five days on condition that a Northern Ireland Office official should go to the Maze and negotiate the prisoners’ five demands in the presence of ‘guarantors’.”
Atkins said the Northern Ireland Office was “not prepared to discuss Mr Sands’ request”.
Department of the Taoiseach senior official Frank Murray asked David Tatham, a counsellor at the British embassy, “what precisely was meant by the sentence, ‘Mr Sands had not responded’.”
Murray writes: “I was told that Mr Sands had in fact said ‘No’ to Fr MacGee’s request on behalf of the pope. The phrase ‘not responded’ in the message meant that Mr Sands had not responded favourably to the pope’s appeal.”
Another file on the meeting, now available in the British archives, records that: “In response to Fr Magee’s plea to end the hunger strike, Sands responded ‘do not ask me that’.”
The document adds: “Father Magee said he had asked Sands to provide time for possibilities to be explored by ending his hunger strike, if only temporarily – say for three days.
“Sands said that he would end it immediately for five days provided that certain conditions were satisfied.”
Atkins pointed out to the pope’s secretary that there was no question of any form of negotiation.
The conditions set out by Bobby Sands are listed as follows:
a) An official from the Northern Ireland Office would visit him to discuss “the whole question”.
b) Two priests should be present as guarantors.
c) Three others prisoners (“not the hunger strikers, but presumably the OCs [IRA Officers Commanding] within the prison”) should be present.
The document continues: “Sands emphasised that he was not demanding political status, but sought satisfaction on the five demands .
“ If this were achieved, he would not begin his hunger strike again at the end of the five days.”
Sands said he realised that to set conditions for ending the strike was not the answer Fr Magee wanted.
But he added that it would serve no useful purpose for Fr Magee to come back again without a representative from the Northern Ireland Office.
Fr Magee asked Atkins whether there was any hope of movement on these well-known issues, as he thought “there was not any great question of principle involved”.
The Northern secretary responded that there could be no negotiation: that was what Sands was trying to initiate.
“The Government had no intention of conceding political status . . . the effect of giving in to the demands would be to create a regime within the prison in which a particular group made their own decisions as to what they wore, the nature of their work, and whether they worked, and which of their fellow prisoners they would associate with.
“To concede that would be wrong – and would also provoke a violent reaction within the Province which would threaten innocent lives.
“Fr Magee said he thought that the prisoners would not be inflexible: they wanted evidence of goodwill because promises had been made to them at the end of the last hunger strike and had not been kept.
“The SoS [secretary of state] emphasised to Fr Magee that no promises had been made at the end of the last hunger strike. That fact was well-known to Sands,” the document adds.
By Sam McBride
Friday 30 December 2011
AMONG many hundreds of pages of classified documents from the time of the 1981 hunger strike is a file on the man who started it.
The two-inch thick file, ‘Hunger strike: events following the death of Robert Gerard Sands’, tells the official story of Bobby Sands’ hunger strike and its effects from the perspective of the medics and prison officers observing him and government officials trying to guess where the protest was going.
Sands, the Maze Prison’s IRA leader and the man who would come to be most closely associated with the protest even when nine others died on hunger strike, announced that he was refusing food on March 1, 1981.
A single-sheet document in the file records the fact.
Signed by senior medical officer D Ross, the document is actually dated March 2 although it says that he “today declared himself on hunger strike”.
Sands’ weight is recorded as 64kgs, his blood pressure as 116/70, his pulse as 78 and a medical summary said: “Condition satisfactory.”
A handwritten March 6 note (five days after Sands’ hunger strike began), seemingly from a prison officer or official, notes that the high-profile prisoner was “cooperating fully with medical staff and prison officers”.
In a description of Sands’ demeanour, the note said: “He is normally of a sullen, dour disposition and remains determined to fast to the death – there is no sign yet of any weakening in his resolve or his health.”
The note added that prison tradesmen had made an adjustment to Sands’ cell window covering to stop a draught.
A further note from the same official several days later, on March 11, said that he spent his time reading newspapers and books in his cell.
It added: “His mood remains the same – resolved and resolute.”
Four days before Sands’ death and with the IRA man gravely ill, chief medical officer RJ Weir wrote a confidential note to Brian Palmer in the NIO about Sands and fellow hunger striker Francis Hughes, who was also approaching a critical phase: “Over the past two days the doctors, who are involved in the medical care of these two men, have reviewed carefully all the indices of their clinical progress.
“Having weighed up both the clinical findings and the scientific data accruing from laboratory tests, and having taken into account both the likely trends forecast earlier in the week and the patterns observed during the hunger strike of late… [rest of sentence underlined] we are suspicious that these two men have ingested some carbohydrate (probably glucose) and some vitamin B over the past few days.
“There is no way of establishing the suspected ingestion as an absolute certainty; the circumstantial evidence, however, amounts to a high degree of probability.”
The chief medical officer then drew attention to the significance of what medics believed had happened.
“Another possibility must now be faced as its potential implications are very considerable,” he wrote.
“If nutrients have been administered to prolong life then manipulative steps to shorten it or stage the timing of its termination [copy is blurry, probably ‘are’] possible.”
Dr Weir was puzzled as to how the prisoners could have obtained carbohydrate without the knowledge of staff attending to them in the prison and he said that it was difficult to see how the prisoners could have been made to ingest a substance without their consent.
But he added that if an autopsy was to reveal that death was brought on by “terminating medications” then “attendant staff could find themselves under suspicion”.
Although Sands did not die until May 5, the final medical report in his file is from May 3.
In the ‘extract from medical officer’s journal’, which is signed by the senior medical officer and the prison governor, medics recorded simply: “Dehydration+++” and “Condition deteriorating+++”.
His pulse was recorded as 100 and blood pressure as 70/40 but under urine analysis there is written N/A [and had been for several days, possibly because his body was not producing any] and the same was written under weight.
A handwritten note on the day of Sands’ death from an AB Mackay to a Mr Jackson titled ‘Release of R Sands body’ said that once the coroner had issued a burial order the family would “usually” be informed by the police that they were permitted to take the body for burial.
Several days later, on May 8, the chief constable and general officer commanding (GOC) met with senior NIO officials to discuss the security situation following Sands’ funeral.
The security chiefs reported that the trouble had been less widespread than they had anticipated.
Republicans claimed that 100,000 attended the funeral, but the chief constable put the number of mourners at 30,000.
“The evening violence was relatively [underlined] low-key,” the RUC chief constable was recorded as having told officials.
There was a “notable success” on the border where two brothers were arrested with firearms and cooperation with the garda was “excellent” in that operation, he reported.
Intelligence ahead of the funeral about the IRA’s intention for widespread violence was still “thought to be accurate”, he said.
However, the terrorists’ plans had been curtailed by bad weather and statements by the secretary of state and chief constable (himself) had helped to calm tensions, he said.
By Louise Hogan
Saturday December 31 2011
THE family of the third H-block hunger striker to die have denied allegations that they intervened to prevent him ending his death fast.
They also deny that Raymond McCreesh had asked for food in the days before he died.
Relations of the 24-year-old, who died on the 61st day of his hunger strike in the Maze Prison, said statements allegedly made by family members in the 1981 State papers were “falsified”.
The files on the 1981 hunger strike contained allegations that McCreesh, a Provisional IRA prisoner from south Armagh, had indicated he would accept nourishment, but family members had stopped any medical intervention.
Last night Malachy McCreesh, Raymond’s brother, said they refuted, as they had also done 30 years ago, the allegation they intervened to keep him on the strike. He also denies that Raymond had asked for food.
“The statements attributed to family members in the recently released report of a prison officer are untrue, inaccurate and falsified,” he said in a family statement.
“The family have always been convinced that the situation was deliberately engineered by authorities in Government and the prison service to break the hunger strike.
“Agents of the State abused the extremely vulnerable condition of a dying man for political and propaganda purposes. When their efforts failed they attempted to vilify the family.”
Raymond died on May 21, 1981, 16 days after Bobby Sands, the first prisoner to die.
Republicans and friends of Sands yesterday described the allegations that he made an offer to a Papal emissary to suspend his hunger strike just a week before his death as “absurd”.
A conversation between Sands and the then Fr John Magee, the personal representative of the Pope who went on to become Bishop of Cloyne, was revealed in the State papers.
A detailed account of a visit to Sands, in which the offer was made, was provided by Fr Magee to Northern Ireland Secretary Humphrey Atkins on behalf of the British Government on April 29, 1981, in Stormont Castle, according to a record of the discussions.
Last night a spokesman for Dr Magee, who resigned as Bishop of Cloyne after a litany of failings in child protection in the diocese were highlighted, told the Irish Independent: “He was appointed by the Pope as an emissary to deal with this matter, which was the whole hunger strike. He then submitted a confidential report to the Vatican.”
Jim Gibney, a Sinn Fein member and former republican political prisoner, had visited Sands before his death and described the allegations as “absurd”.
“At no stage did he mention to us that he had made this offer or this suggestion to Bishop Magee so I think the basis of that is absolutely bogus,” Mr Gibney told RTE Radio.
Danny Morrison, a leading republican, said he was in contact with the people meeting Sands and his family yet this was the first time he had ever heard this mentioned.
“I am suspicious about it. It is the sort of thing if the British knew for certain they would have leaked to undermine the integrity of Bobby Sands,” Mr Morrison said, adding it was “incredulous”.
By Michael Kelly
Catholic News Service
30 Dec 2011
DUBLIN (CNS) — Declassified British documents reveal the extent to which Pope John Paul II tried unsuccessfully to intervene to end a 1981 hunger strike by Catholic prisoners in a British jail in Northern Ireland.
The documents claim that, after the pope sent a special envoy, the leader of the Provisional Irish Republican Army prisoners, Bobby Sands, was willing to suspend the fast just days before he died.
The offer was conveyed to the British authorities by the pope’s secretary, Irish Msgr. John Magee, whom Pope John Paul dispatched to persuade the prisoners to call off the hunger strike.
The state papers, declassified under the 30-year-rule, claim that Sands told Msgr. Magee, who later became the bishop of Cloyne, that he would suspend his strike in return for discussions with a British government official, two priests and three other prisoners as witnesses.
However, the British rejected the offer, claiming it was an attempt to open negotiations. The prisoners, incarcerated for paramilitary activity against British rule in Northern Ireland, had begun their hunger strike in a bid to be reclassified as political prisoners, a move Britain vehemently rejected.
Sands died May 5, 1981, after 66 days on hunger strike; he was buried with a crucifix that Msgr. Magee had given him as a gift from Pope John Paul. Ten prisoners starved themselves to death before a compromise was reached that October.
The hunger strike significantly polarized tensions between the majority-Protestant and minority-Catholic communities in Northern Ireland. More than 100,000 Catholics attended Sands’ funeral, and Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, began contesting elections for the first time.
Most Northern Irish Catholics want Britain to cede the region to the Irish Republic to form a single independent Ireland, while most Protestants support the region’s continuation in the United Kingdom. A 1998 peace accord committed all sides to pursue their goals by purely peaceful means. As a result, Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom but is governed by a cross-community power-sharing government based in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
The declassified papers also reveal that Irish Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald appealed to Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich in 1981 for a change in the Catholic Church’s approach to interchurch marriages.
At the time, children of interchurch marriages were required to be raised Catholic.
But FitzGerald said he believed a change would aid peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. He wrote the cardinal that the government wanted to “indicate concern” and “raise the possibility” that the Vatican “might not perhaps be disposed to take special account of the Irish situation if invited to do so.”
“I trust that Your Eminence will appreciate and understand the motives that have led me to write to you at this time in these terms, in full recognition of the separation of church and state,” he added.
Soon after, the Irish bishops decided to postpone publication of a revised directory on mixed marriages. After a meeting with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in November 1981, FitzGerald described the bishops’ postponement as “significant.”
The new directory issued in November 1983 retained the promise by the Catholic partner to raise the children Catholic, but stressed that parents had joint responsibility for the religious upbringing of their children.
30 Dec 2011
Newly-released State Papers from 1981 claim Bobby Sands offered to suspend his hunger strike just a week before his death.
According to the documents released this morning under the 30-year rule, the offer was conveyed to the British Government by the Pope’s Secretary, John Magee.
30 years on, and Government archives in Dublin, Belfast and London are opened today, giving new insights into the events of 1981.
The year was dominated by the H-Block hunger strikes in Northern Ireland, in which ten men died, starting with Bobby Sands.
The papers contain the claim that just a week before his death, Sands offered to suspend his strike for five days, when he met John Magee, then Secretary to the Pope, who later became Bishop of Cloyne.
Father Magee told Northern Secretary Humphrey Atkins that Sands said he would suspend his strike in return for discussions with a British government official, in the presence of two priests and three other prisoners as witnesses.
The British rejected the offer out of hand, claiming it was an attempt to open negotiations.
Senior Republicans involved in the hunger strike have told RTÉ News they had never heard of such an offer, which they say went against everything Bobby Sands did and said during the hunger strike.
‘Behind Closed Doors’ is on RTÉ One from 7.30pm tonight, where RTÉ’s David McCullagh examines Government documents to gain a fresh perspective on the events of 1981
Friday December 30 2011
Former prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s secret attempts to end the IRA hunger strikes have been revealed in official documents made public for the first time.
In public, she took an unbending stand, insisting she would not bow to the demands of republican prisoners held in Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison for so-called “special status”.
IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands died in the Maze prison after 65 days of his hunger strike
However, files released under the 30-year rule 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.
The hunger strikes of 1981 triggered one of the worst crises of the Troubles, galvanising support for the republicans and turning Mrs Thatcher into a hate figure for much of Northern Ireland’s nationalist community.
Four hunger strikers had died, and before his death their leader, 27-year-old Bobby Sands, had secured a propaganda coup, winning an election as an MP after standing in the Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election. So 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 Derry 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 the 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 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 the situation would be “irreparably damaged” if another hunger striker died and urged the government to “act with the utmost haste”.
11 December 2011
An ex-Provo prisoner who watched his comrades die on hunger-strike has blasted the IRA leadership for their “needless deaths”.
Richard O’Rawe says key IRA leaders should “hang their heads in shame” for rejecting a secret British offer which could have saved six hunger-strikers’ lives in the notorious H-Blocks.
The West Belfast republican, who was the prisoners’ public relations officer, claims “six men with hearts like lions were let die horrific deaths for nothing other than getting Sinn Féin votes”.
Four hunger-strikers were already dead when British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, capitulated and made her dramatic offer in July 1981 effectively granting most of the prisoners’ demands.
O’Rawe, who bravely lifted the lid in 2001 on the secret British proposal to end the hunger-strike, was speaking after his account was proven true by documents just lodged in an Irish university.
He’s now urging republicans all over Ireland to urgently revise their understanding of what happened during the H-Block death fast that made headlines across the world.
“The evidence is there for all to see. It’s the biggest cover-up in the history of Irish republicanism,” he told the Sunday World.
The hunger-strike was run on the outside by a clandestine committee set up by the Army Council. Its members included the North’s best known Provos who were also in Sinn Féin.
“These men should have the guts to finally come clean and tell how they let six republicans, whose boots they weren’t fit to lace, needlessly die horrific deaths in a H-block hell-hole.
“Let them explain how they rejected an offer which meant Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Tom McElwee, Kieran Doherty and Mickey Devine would all have lived.”
O’Rawe spoke of the threats and intimidation he and his family had suffered since he exposed the leadership’s lies. “‘Richard O’Rawe H-Block traitor’ was written on the wall opposite my home. Well, it’s now as clear as daylight who betrayed the hunger-strikers.”
Papers donated to the National University of Ireland in Galway by Derry businessman, Brendan Duddy, show how the IRA prison leadership accepted a substantial British offer to end the death fast.
Known as the ‘Mountain Climber’, Duddy was the messenger between the British and the IRA. His notes show – as O’Rawe claimed in his best-selling book Blanketmen – that the British made an offer on 5 July 1981 effectively granting the prisoners’ five demands except free association.
Joe McDonnell, the fifth hunger-striker, was hovering on the brink of death so urgent action was required. Duddy relayed the offer to Martin McGuinness who told Gerry Adams. Danny Morrison was then despatched to the H-Blocks to brief Bik McFarlane, the IRA commander in the jail.
When he returned to his cell, McFarlane told O’Rawe the good news. “We were both delighted. A few hours free movement every day wasn’t worth one more life,” says O’Rawe.
“The British were compromising on prison uniforms, work, visits, letters and segregation. Bik wrote to Gerry Adams, accepting the offer.”
However, the Army Council committee then sent word into the jail that the offer wasn’t enough. On 7 July, the IRA told the British that while the substance of the proposal was acceptable, the “tone” needed changing.
Joe McDonnell died the next day. “This fine republican died because an Army Council clique didn’t like the ‘tone’ of a document,” says O’Rawe. “Five other great men, the bravest of the brave, followed him. The hunger-strikers were Spartacuses.
“They gave everything they had to the republican movement. They believed to their death in a 32 county socialist republic. This Army Council committee between them didn’t have even an ounce of one hunger-striker’s courage. They were a bunch of immoral, unscrupulous b*****ds.”
It was later revealed that the Army Council committee never briefed the entire Army Council itself on the details of the offer.
The hunger-strike had become “a cynical PR exercise to gain votes”, O’Rawe claims. It had to continue at least until Owen Carron won the Fermanagh and South Tyrone Westminister by-election in August, holding Bobby Sands’ seat.
The official Provo line has always been that a callous, uncompromising British government let 10 men die. “That lie’s now exposed,” says O’Rawe. “The hunger-strikers broke Margaret Thatcher. She blinked first. She gave in but the men weren’t told
The ex-IRA man says he faced a campaign of vilification since he began exposing the truth about the hunger-strike: “I was told I could be shot. My children were harassed. ‘Your da’s a liar,’ people shouted at them.
“I was ostracised. Guys I’d operated with in the IRA, some of my best friends, snubbed me as the leadership spread their lies.”
O’Rawe (57) lives just across the road from Milltown Cemetery on the Falls where three hunger-strikers are buried.
He often visits the graves of Bobby Sands, Joe McDonnell, and Kieran Doherty: “It’s heart-breaking but I don’t need to go there to remember them because they never leave my mind.” On the 30th anniversary of the 10 deaths, he still breaks down in tears thinking of his comrades.
December 12, 2011
This article appeared in the December 11, 2011 edition of the Sunday World.