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PM warned speculating about Garda leaks to IRA would benefit terrorists

By Gerard Cunningham
Belfast Telegraph
16 May 2012

Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Northern Ireland Secretary Tom King were urged to play down allegations of Garda collusion with the IRA following the murders of two RUC officers.

The confidential briefing note for the Prime Minister warned that adding to speculation about Garda collusion would be “playing the terrorists’ game”.

The notes said that answers to Parliamentary questions about alleged leaks from gardai to the IRA killers of Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan should note “there was not a shred of evidence to substantiate these allegations which are extremely dangerous”.

The confidential notes were among a series of documents relating to the lethal attack which were handed over to the tribunal by the PSNI and read into the record by barrister Justin Dillon SC.

Another document prepared following the publication of Bandit Country by journalist Toby Harnden complained that it was “blatantly obvious the material contained within the publication emanated from official sources”.

“Material content including photographs could only be sourced via the security network,” the document said.

RUC intelligence documents included 1996 reports about the IRA kidnapping and interrogation of former Garda Detective Sergeant Owen Corrigan and Francie Tiernan, a business associate.

The reports noted the kidnapping took place “without authority from senior command”, and that those involved were later subject to “internal disciplinary procedures” with the Provisional IRA.

Mr Corrigan, who is represented before the tribunal, denies allegations of collusion.

Story so far

The Smithwick Tribunal was set up in 2005 to examine the allegations of Garda collusion in the deaths of the the two most senior RUC officers killed during the Troubles. Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan were shot dead in an IRA ambush as they returned from a meeting in Dundalk Garda station in March 1989.


“…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.

The story of Margaret Thatcher is coming to the big screen and more than 20 years since she was Prime Minister, opinion is still divided about her rule.
5 Jan 2012
**Video onsite

The Iron Lady takes an in-depth look at Thatcher’s public and private life, including her struggle with dementia.

UTV took a former IRA prisoner and a leading unionist politician to watch as Meryl Streep took on the role of Mrs Thatcher, a woman who held power during some of NI’s most contentious times.

The relationship between England and Northern Ireland featured in The Iron Lady, and included events such as the 1984 Brighton bombing and the murder of her close political friend Airey Neve by the INLA.

Séanna Walsh, a former leader of the blanket protest, became Officer Commander of the IRA prisoners in the H-Blocks during the 1981 hunger strikes.

He sympathised with Thatcher’s personal issues, but said seeing the effects of the dementia from which she suffered, did not change his opinion.

“Once you’re into the film you do feel that sympathy waning somewhat – or at least I, as an Irish Republican, would obviously feel that way,” he said.

“I feel in 1981 it was very obvious that Thatcher was at the heart of the stance that the British Government were taking in regards to the Hunger Strike, and all that was involved with that.

“That’s not going to be impacted in any way by this excellent portrayal by Meryl Streep.”

DUP MLA Jeffrey Donaldson said the film was a reminder of the “dark days of the past”.

“I didn’t always agree with her politics but the film has not diminished my admiration for Margaret Thatcher as a very powerful leader and one of the most powerful Prime Ministers of the UK,” he said.

“The film portrays her as being uncompromising, in fact on some issues she did compromise significantly on her principles – not least when it came to the Anglo-Irish Agreement in Northern Ireland.”

The Iron Lady opens on Friday 6 January.

By Ed Carty
Irish Examiner
Friday, December 30, 2011

CARDINAL Tomas Ó Fiaich claimed Margaret Thatcher lectured him on the North as she accused hunger strikers of “demonstrating virility”, state papers have revealed.

His account of his meeting with the British prime minister in the summer of 1981 left officials in no doubt about shattered Anglo-Irish relations.

“In general the cardinal’s account of his meeting with the prime minister reinforced the impression that she is insensitive and of an authoritarian disposition,” a report to the Taoiseach’s office stated.

The cardinal gave his views on Mrs Thatcher in a private meeting with Carmel Heaney, the consul general in Boston while in the US to fund raise for a library in NUI Maynooth.

Ms Heaney described to taoiseach Garret FitzGerald’s office on November 4 1981 details of the PM’s hardline attitudes towards the hunger strike.

“He described her lecturing him and telling him she had read all the documents about Northern Ireland and didn’t need to be told what it was all about,” she wrote.

“She wondered if the motivation for the hunger strikers wasn’t to demonstrate their virility!

“She could not understand the continued Irish animosity against the British considering that even the Germans were now willing to be friends.

“Cardinal Ó Fiaich suggested that the perhaps the reason the Germans were now friends with the British was that the British were no longer in occupation of Germany.”

In a speech the night before at a fundraiser the Cardinal did not mention the Northern situation.

After Bobby Sands’ death on May 5 and Francis Hughes’ death on May 12, Cardinal Ó Fiaich sent a telegram pressurising Mrs Thatcher to reach a deal with the IRA.

The passionate appeal stated: “In God’s name, don’t allow another death.” The cardinal, who released the note to the press at the time, accused the prime minister and her cabinet of an “inflexible policy” on the prisons.

Mrs Thatcher replied publicly: “The solution does not lie in our hands. It lies with the hunger strikers themselves, their families and advisers.

“More directly, it lies with the leaders of the Provisional IRA, who have taken a cold-blooded decision that the unfortunate men now fasting in prison are of more use to them dead than alive. This seems to me the most immoral and inflexible decision anyone could take.”

The papers also show that over lunch in Rome in late 1981 the ambassador to the Holy See warned that appointing a papal nuncio to London would endorse partition and divide the church in Ireland. Pope John Paul II’s diplomatic staff were told such a move would create disdain, doubt and dismay and leave Irish Catholics aggrieved.

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.

By Graham Matthews
Green Left
Friday, December 30, 2011

The Iron Lady
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd, written by Abi Morgan, starring Meryl Streep
In cinemas now

Film can be a powerful ideological tool. Truth can be manipulated, tyrannies expunged and sympathy conjured for the devil. The Iron Lady, depicting the life and times of former British Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, is just such a film.

A generation after Thatcher’s unceremonious dumping by her own party as PM, and as the aging dowager struggles with dementia, the film tries to paint her as a modern-day British hero, struggling against the evils of terrorism, unionism and fascism (the Argentine junta) to deliver Britain into an age of unending prosperity and sunshine.

Iron Lady is a completely uncritical presentation of Thatcher’s legacy, a breath-taking attempt at rewriting history in favour of the Tory icon.

Thatcher is depicted as a Tory outsider, born of humble beginnings, but desperate to deliver genuine “equality of opportunity” to all. Meryl Streep’s Thatcher is a determined reformer, taking on the power of vested interest (whether the toffs of the Tory party or the unions) in the name of Britain’s shopkeepers and other hard-working folk.

The film tries to rehabilitate Thatcher’s entire political legacy, even those aspects that her own party has attempted to quietly walk away from.

The sinking of the Argentinean warship General Belgrano, during the brief but brutal British war to recapture the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands in 1982, even though the ship was heading away from the British-imposed exclusion zone around the islands, was justified because the ship may have been going to change course. More than 300 people died.

The wrecking of British industry, the creation of 3 million unemployed and the destruction of entire communities in the north of England is justified by the subsequent prosperity generated for some as Britain became the financial centre of Europe.

The film even attempts to justify the notorious poll tax, a deeply regressive tax where all British residents were to pay the same tax –regardless of income or wealth. The huge popular campaign against the poll tax made it practically inoperable, and forced its withdrawal by Thatcher’s Tory successor, John Major.

Not that there’s any hint of that in the film; Streep’s Thatcher simply says that it’s necessary, because everyone must pay something for the privilege of living in Britain!

Opposition to Thatcher is caricatured. The mass protests against mine closures in England’s and against the Poll Tax, are simply shown as violent riots. The only articulate opposition to Thatcher in the film is parliamentary, in the form of British Labour Party leader Michael Foot.

In the fashion of all conservative film made after 9/11, much is made of Thatcher’s opposition to terrorism — in this case the Irish struggle against British occupation. The film focuses on the Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombing campaign within Britain — particularly the attack on the Tory Party conference at Brighton in southern England in October 1984.

Thatcher is painted as a hero standing up against the Irish bullies, rather than the principal organiser of Irish oppression. The shameful persecution of republican prisoners in the infamous H-Block prison in Ireland’s north, which culminated in 10 prisoners starving themselves to death in 1981 as Thatcher refused to negotiate over their key demand for political status, barely rates a mention.

The prisoners enjoyed widespread popular support, with the first prisoner to die — Bobby Sands — being dramatically elected to parliament from prison during his hunger strike. This was a humiliation for Thatcher.

The Iron Lady is not content simply to whitewash Thatcher’s legacy. It also seeks to curry sympathy for the devil herself. Throughout much of the film, Thatcher is portrayed as she is now, a demented old woman, struggling to tell the difference between reality and delusion.

Her chats with her dead husband Denis, and her struggle to pack up his belongings seven years after his death, would soften the hardest heart. But Thatcher is not the nice old lady who lives next door. She is not a poor widow, struggling to make ends meet and pay for the heating in her council flat. She’s an icon of the neoliberal movement in Britain and elsewhere; a woman who’s government smashed social services, destroyed communities and killed thousands of Argentinean conscripts in an unjust, if popular, war.

The Iron Lady, while well acted and snappily produced, is no more than a falsification of history, intended to rehabilitate Thatcher’s legacy as another Tory government in Britain begins to take the cudgels to whatever remnants of British society that Thatcher left standing.

30 Dec 2011

Files just released by the National Archives show Margaret Thatcher took part in negotiations with the IRA during the 1981 Hunger Strikes, BBC investigative journalist Peter Taylor has said.

The contacts took place through an MI6 officer and a secret back-channel to the IRA code-named Soon.

Mr Taylor said the files show Margaret Thatcher was involved in negotiations with the IRA

Soon was Derry businessman Brendan Duddy.

Mr Taylor said Mrs Thatcher altered by hand one statement sent to the IRA.

“When I read these documents I was astonished,” he said.

“I think that they are revelatory and of genuine historical importance because they give lie to all sorts of assumptions that were made incorrectly about the Hunger Strikes and the relationship between the government and the IRA.

“These documents spell it out large that Mrs Thatcher was involved in negotiations with the IRA.”

The documents contain details of eight phone calls between the MI6 officer and Mr Duddy during the weekend from 4 July to 6 July 1981.

Among the proposals coming from IRA prisoners was that senior republican Martin McGuinness, now Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, be allowed in to see them in the Maze.

This was turned down by the government.

“That was all to do with the government’s insistence, Mrs Thatcher’s insistence, that she did not negotiate with terrorists, she did not and would not negotiate with the IRA.

“The documents clearly indicate that that was nonsense, that was going on all the time behind the scene.”

In the final call from Mr Duddy on Monday 6 July, he said the IRA endorsed their earlier demands and wanted to see a government response before it was made public. The government sent a statement straight away.

“This letter represents the government’s final negotiating position,” Mr Taylor said.

“Margaret Thatcher made changes to it in her own hand.
Maze Prison Republicans were on hunger strike at the Maze prison

“The issue of clothing is resolved, the issues of parcels and visits is resolved, but again, critically, the issues of work and association are not resolved.

“It’s Mrs Thatcher who crosses out the relevant parts of the document that indicate she, the British government, is not prepared to give in on work and association.”

At the end of the statement was a message.

It read: “If we receive a satisfactory response to this proposal by 9am on Tuesday 7 July we shall be prepared to provide you with an advance text of the full statement.

“If the reply is unsatisfactory and there is subsequently any public reference to this exchange we will deny it took place.”

Mrs Thatcher’s former chief press secretary Sir Bernard Ingham said he was completely unaware of any negotiations involving the prime minister.

“As far as I can see, there wasn’t a great deal of negotiation here,” he said of the newly released documents.

By Thomas Penny and Robert Hutton
Bloomberg Businessweek
December 30, 2011, 9:24 AM EST

Dec. 30 (Bloomberg) — Margaret Thatcher considered pulling out of Northern Ireland in 1981 as hunger strikes by republican prisoners brought international condemnation, in contrast to her public position that she would “not flinch” from keeping the province in the U.K., previously secret papers show.

While members of Thatcher’s Cabinet warned that such a move risked bloodshed, civil war and unrest among the Irish diaspora in British cities, the prime minister said all options should be considered, the documents released today after the statutory 30- year delay show. She also took part in drafting proposals to the prisoners aimed at bringing the protests over their conditions to an end even as her government said publicly it was not involved in negotiations.

“Many people in Britain now believed that a settlement of the complex problems of the area would be more easily reached by the Irish on their own and that continued British involvement could only mean the futile sacrifice of further British lives,” the confidential report of a Cabinet meeting on July 2 says. In her summing-up, Thatcher “said that further thought would need to be given to all possible courses of action in regard to Northern Ireland, however difficult or unpalatable.”

Ten prisoners from the paramilitary Irish Republican Army starved themselves to death in a protest that lasted from March until October. They included Bobby Sands, who was elected as a member of the House of Commons while in jail. The detainees said they shouldn’t be treated as criminals and demanded the rights of prisoners of war, including wearing their own clothes and avoiding prison work. The Cabinet records show ministers were given regular updates on their health.

‘Real Aim’

At the July 2 session, at which they discussed the possibility of forced intravenous feeding of the prisoners, ministers considered a British withdrawal from the province, which they said was the hunger strikers’ “real aim” and was supported by “widespread feeling” in British public opinion. Also weighing on their minds were “increasingly disturbing signs of an erosion of international confidence in British policy.”

Ministers acknowledged such a move could result in civil war and “massive bloodshed” in Northern Ireland as well as unrest among Irish communities in the rest of the U.K., according to the report, which was considered so sensitive that only one copy was made. “Even the suggestion of a withdrawal could lead to serious unrest in western Scotland,” it said.


Ireland was partitioned in 1921, with the mainly Protestant northeast staying within the U.K. More than 3,500 people were killed in the conflict known as the Troubles, which began in the late 1960s and saw republican and loyalist paramilitaries waging campaigns of terror. British troops were deployed in Northern Ireland in 1969 and ended operations in 2007 after the province’s political parties agreed to share power.

While it was emphasized in public in 1981 that there were no negotiations between the government and the hunger strikers, the files released today include detailed secret reports on discussions through an intermediary codenamed “Soon,” who was speaking to nationalist leaders including Martin McGuinness, now deputy first minister of Northern Ireland.

Thatcher was kept informed of the talks, including being briefed after midnight on July 8, and her handwriting appears to be on a draft of an offer of concessions to be made to the prisoners, which she approved.

‘We Shall Deny’

“If the reply we receive is unsatisfactory and there is subsequently any public reference to this exchange we shall deny that it took place,” it says at the bottom of the text of the proposal, which involved changes to prison conditions and was rejected by the republicans.

President Ronald Reagan’s new U.S. administration was praised for its “reticence” over Northern Ireland in the face of growing pressure from the Irish diaspora, according to a briefing note preparing the ground for a visit to the U.K. by Vice President George Bush.

U.K. diplomats in Washington were watching the new administration with interest and Thatcher, the first leader invited to see Reagan, was already a fan.

“I’m really quite optimistic,” she told West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt by phone in November 1980.

Stephen Wall, a British diplomat, wrote that while Reagan didn’t give the impression that he “grasps the complexity of foreign-policy issues, and the fact that they are linked together” and that he “clearly does not do his homework,” he nevertheless “comes across as a man at ease in his job.”

‘More Formidable’

Reagan, he wrote in August 1981, “is probably the first president since Kennedy to be regarded as both competent and decent. While his intellectual capacity may not equal that of his predecessor, he is a much more formidable politician than many imagined.”

There was a culture clash during preparations for the Bush visit when the U.K. security services held out against Secret Service agents accompanying the vice president being allowed to carry guns. The concern was that if Bush’s security detail could bring weapons, agents accompanying the first lady, Nancy Reagan, would want to do the same for the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer in London on July 29 and all visiting dignitaries would claim the same right.

The British also objected to the U.S. Secret Service checking security arrangements they had made for Bush’s visit. Martin Berthoud from the Foreign Office’s North America Department related a “bizarre incident” involving the wife of Foreign Secretary Peter Carrington in which U.S. officials met with and were defeated by the force of the British aristocracy.

‘Sent Them Packing’

“A group of Secret Service men attempted to check out Lady Carrington’s residence prior to her tea for Mrs. Bush without previous arrangement. She sent them packing,” Berthoud wrote. They “also contrived to infuriate the secretary of state himself by attempting to post their man as a guard outside his office door. Lord Carrington has said he will not allow this to happen again.”

The files released today also show how arguments with France, as Prime Minister David Cameron has experienced in dealings with President Nicolas Sarkozy over the European Union in recent weeks, are a British tradition.

Officials preparing in 1979 for a visit by French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing showed their counterparts into the Cabinet Room in the prime minister’s 10 Downing Street residence, where Thatcher was proposing to hold talks with him. The French expressed concern when they saw that Thatcher’s would be the only chair in the room with arms.

“The Elysee party pointed out that they would consider it essential for the president to have a chair equal in status — i.e. with arms — to the prime minister,” a British aide wrote in a memo. “Alternatively, would the prime minister swap her chair for a ‘regular’ (i.e. armless) model? Sorry about this — the French made the point quite seriously.”

Carrington asked the British ambassador in Paris to “get this little matter sorted.” In response, the French suggested Thatcher could sit in a different chair, before agreeing to check whether previous French presidents had objected to the seating arrangement. The outcome isn’t recorded.

–Editors: Eddie Buckle, James Hertling
Friday December 30 2011

Garret FitzGerald warned Margaret Thatcher that Ireland could be forced to cut off security ties with the British at the height of the Maze hunger strikes, it has emerged.

The then taoiseach – days after being elected to office – told the prime minister his government’s view of her handling of the crisis was starting to converge with that of the IRA.

“This is naturally the last position in which we would wish to find ourselves,” he said in a secret letter, just declassified under the 30-year-rule.

In a signal of the diminishing relations, Mrs Thatcher threatened a “sharp and bitter” response if there was any suggestion of less than full co-operation in the fight against the IRA. With tensions at an all-time high, Mr FitzGerald said the stability of the Irish Republic and its relations with Britain had come under direct threat.

Five people had died on the protest fast by July 10 1981 when Mr FitzGerald wrote the letter. But the imminent death of Kieran Doherty, who had been elected to the Dail, was particularly striking fear into the Fine Gael leader.

The Dublin government was extremely frustrated with Downing Street intransigence over a proposed solution by the Catholic Church-established Irish Commission for Justice and Peace, which had mediated between prisoners and the British.

Mr FitzGerald told Mrs Thatcher his newly elected coalition was unable to do or say anything to counter the lack of public confidence in the British government’s handling of the crisis.

“We are thus faced with the danger of a serious and progressive deterioration in bilateral relations,” he said. The Dublin government had “up until the present” believed there should be no political status for prisoners.

“In these last few days, however, the deplorable situation has been reached that the points of view of the government and the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace are seen to converge with that of the Provisional IRA in criticism of your authorities’ handling of these events,” he said.

Other state records from the time show Dublin’s Foreign Affairs department contacted embassies, including in Madrid and Bonn, seeking information where authorities abroad had “negotiated directly” with prisoners in similar protests.

National Archives releases papers that lay bare fraught private discussions over government’s stance on Maze prisoners

Owen Bowcott
29 Dec 2011

A building in Belfast with a mural of Bobby Sands, one of the 10 hunger strikers who died during their campaign to secure political status for republican prisoners at the Maze. (Photograph: Eamonn Mccabe for the Guardian)

The Thatcher government wobbled in its resolution to resist the IRA’s Maze prison hunger strike and contemplated the “unpalatable” option of British withdrawal from Northern Ireland, according to secret cabinet documents.

The desperation of the government’s predicament during early July 1981 is revealed in files which show the prime minister negotiating directly with the republican leadership and considering whether compulsory “intravenous feeding” could be used to keep prisoners alive.

One letter, though unsigned, bears what must be Margaret Thatcher’s distinctive, handwritten alterations to the text of a message sent through an MI6-mediated “channel” of communication to the IRA.

Ten men, including Bobby Sands, died in their campaign to secure political status for republican prisoners. Seven were members of the IRA, three from the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA).

While the government’s public stance at the time was defiance in the face of terrorist demands and a refusal to negotiate, behind the scenes an unusually, fraught tone is discernible in private discussions.

A “secret” cabinet paper marked “one copy only”, released to the National Archives in Kew, records an “informal discussion” at the end of a cabinet meeting on 2 July.

It noted “increasingly disturbing signs of an erosion of international confidence in British policy” towards the IRA hunger strike at the Maze prison outside Belfast. The government did not want to be portrayed as “inflexible”.

“Ideally some independent body should be invited to satisfy itself that the government’s attitude on the prison regime was both humane and reasonable,” it said. The European Commission for Human Rights had declined to play any role in the absence of any complaint.

“The government,” the cabinet note said, “could not, of course, make a complaint against themselves; the prisoners were not prepared to do so; and though another government could in theory fill in the gap it was questionable whether it would be wise to try to stimulate this.”

But it was the prospect of an intervention by the previous prime minister, James Callaghan, which caused most anxiety. “The difficulty of the government’s position seemed certain to be increased by the evolving opposition attitude towards Irish unity as an ultimate objective,” the document said.

It was thought Callaghan was about to make a speech proposing that Northern Ireland “should become independent, with transitional arrangements under which British troops and British financial assistance would remain available for a limited period.

“His [Callaghan’s] views might well receive massive support from public opinion in Britain, where there was already a widespread feeling in favour of British withdrawal,” it said.

The “watershed” had been passed once Sands was elected as an MP. “Many people in Britain now believed that a settlement of the complex problems of the area would be more easily reached by the Irish on their own and that continued British involvement could only mean the futile sacrifice of further British lives.”

But withdrawal was likely to result in “civil war and massive bloodshed”, with the Troubles spreading to British cities with significant Irish populations, the ministers present acknowledged.

The “guarantee to the province” was enshrined in statute and would need legislation. “The passage of this would be an occasion for turbulence as well as controversy. Even the suggestion of a withdrawal could lead to serious unrest in western Scotland.”

By then, four hunger strikers had already died. The immediate problem was how to prevent further deaths, so the cabinet discussion moved on to “compulsory feeding”.

“If done intravenously by modern methods,” it was proposed, “this should not involve the violent scenes associated with the forcible feeding of prisoners in the past.

“On the other hand, it was uncertain whether the prison doctors would be willing to co-operate; and if intravenous feeding led to all the protesting prisoners coming out on hunger strike, the authorities would be faced with the enormous task of sustaining by such methods indefinitely.” In the end, it was never tried.

The discussion ended with Thatcher summing up, saying “further thought would need to be given to all possible courses of action in regard to Northern Ireland, however difficult or unpalatable”.

Another prime ministerial file carries details of a message sent in secret on 6 July 1981 via MI6 to the leadership of the Provisional IRA in an attempt to negotiate a deal that would end the hunger strike.

The letter, sent to a businessman in Derry, Brendan Duddy, who was an intermediary, is headed “Message to be sent through the channel”. It sets out what the government would do “if, but only if” it was called off.

Prison uniforms would go and inmates could wear their own clothes “subject to approval of the prison governor”. Some of the list has been corrected in what appears to be the prime minister’s handwriting – the floating crossbars on the t’s and the not fully looped p’s are distinctive.

Her annotations seem not to have introduced any fresh concessions. The letter ends with the warning: “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.”

That the prime minister was directly involved is in no doubt. A memorandum to Thatcher from Humphrey Atkins, the Northern Ireland secretary, the following day refers to “the sending of the message which you approved last night”.

In the aftermath of the peace process, a bitter debate has opened up between mainstream provisional republicans and rival dissident factions over whether the hunger strike was deliberately prolonged by the leadership in order to build up political support for the movement.

Danny Morrison, one of the key provisional figures who went into the Maze that July, told the Guardian the documents vindicated the IRA’s decisions at the time. “I find these documents very refreshing,” he said. “At least they have published what was happening. These conversations were recorded by Michael Oatley [the MI6 officer] or his secretary. We never got the final [British] position [before hunger striker] Joe O’Donnell died.”

The negotiations did not succeed immediately and the hunger strike continued until October, when it finally ended.

Owen Bowcott
Thursday 29 December 2011

Suggestions that the pope be given the honour of addressing both houses of parliament on his first visit to Britain were discouraged by senior advisers and vetoed by Margaret Thatcher.

Fears that the Northern Ireland MP Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist party, would disrupt the event and the fact that Pope John Paul II was not head of the “established church” proved decisive.

Preparations for the visit, which finally went ahead in 1982, started nearly two years earlier. Confirmation of the invitation caused a flurry of opposition from fringe evangelical groups.

The prime ministerial file on the event, released to the National Archives, contains a letter from the Protestant Reformation Society objecting to the arrangements as well as the organisation’s pamphlet, entitled Ten Reasons Why the Pope Should Not Be Invited to Make a State Visit to Britain. Paisley was also recorded as having telephoned Downing Street seeking details.

Two peers, Lord Bessborough and Lord Ingleby, had suggested the pope be asked to address both houses. The opportunity is rarely granted, although both the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Barack Obama have delivered speeches at Westminster in the past few years.

Lord Hailsham, the lord chancellor, wrote to No 10 saying there was likely to be a “good measure of support” for the proposal although he had spoken to the duke of Norfolk, the most senior Catholic peer, who advised the “greatest caution” about any parliamentary address.

Drafting advice for Thatcher in March 1981, the cabinet secretary, Sir Robert Armstrong, pointed out that the pope had not spoken in either the French or Irish parliaments during recent visits.

“It would look very odd if the pope were to address members of the two houses of parliament in a country which has an established church of which he is not head,” he wrote.

“I also have it in my mind that, if there were to be such an occasion, it would be impossible to exclude Mr Paisley as a member of parliament and he would be almost bound to come and make a nuisance of himself.

“My private information is that both the cardinal archbishop of Westminster and the duke of Norfolk do not favour the idea.”

On the letter, Thatcher noted that she agreed that “such a course of action would have the gravest consequences and would damage the pope, the established church and parliament.”

The prime minister, the daughter of a methodist lay preacher, added: “Perhaps we could discuss this in cabinet, but I have no doubt that the view will be strongly against.”

Paisley went on to be ejected from the European parliament in 1986 for heckling Thatcher and in 1988 for denouncing the pope as the “antichrist”.

Bobby Sands mural photo
Ní neart go cur le chéile


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