New perspective on Long Kesh hunger-strike
Deaglán de Bréadún
Once more into the blog, dear friends, and a Happy New Year to all our customers. Your comments on the following would be welcome. It’s an analysis piece for today’s Irish Times attempting to put the events of 1981 in perspective. Today, the State Papers from that year are released to public view under the 30-year rule. Now read on:
THOSE WHO do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. In that spirit, hopefully, our leaders and their advisers will find time to peruse the reports of the 1981 State Papers, released to public view today under the 30-year rule.
It was, of course, the year when a hunger strike at the Maze Prison, Long Kesh, brought turmoil north and south of the Border. For anyone alive at the time, it will be painful to relive the experience; for those who did not have to endure those stark days and months, it will be an eye-opener to read about them.
As bad as our political situation may appear now, it was far worse then. Not alone were there serious economic problems, but violence and killing were occurring constantly in the Northern part of the island.
The award-winning 2008 film Hunger, starring Kerry actor Michael Fassbender, conveys to a new generation the drama and squalor of that prison fast to the death by 10 men whose average age was 25. They were in their teens when the North erupted in 1969.
In addition to these self-inflicted deaths, there were many other fatalities arising from the Troubles that year: republicans were responsible for 74 of these; loyalists killed 14 and the security forces, 17. One of the most shocking, because of its almost casual nature, was the killing of part-time census-taker Joanne Mathers (25), a Protestant mother of one. She was shot in the head by a gunman in Derry as she helped a householder fill in the census form.
There was nothing casual about the hunger strike, which was a carefully planned and prepared act of war. On Day Three of his fast, Bobby Sands told Irish Times journalist Brendan Ó Cathaoir that he expected to die for the principle of political status.
Rejecting the Catholic Church’s moral strictures against hunger striking, he said: “If I die, God will understand.” He added that it was a personal decision to go on the fast. The archives indicate that he rejected an order from Pope John Paul II to call off the protest.
A week before the hunger striker died – according to an internal British memo passed on to the government in Dublin – the pope’s secretary, Fr John Magee (more recently and controversially bishop of Cloyne) delivered a personal message from the pontiff “telling Mr Sands that it was his duty to stop”.
Although then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher took a very hard line publicly against granting the hunger strikers’ demands, the British government appeared to adopt a more conciliatory approach in private.
Charles Haughey was in power for the first six months of 1981 before being ousted in a general election by Garret FitzGerald at the head of a Fine Gael-Labour coalition. As taoiseach, Haughey persuaded Marcella Sands, a sister of the hunger striker, to make an application to the European Commission of Human Rights to intervene in the crisis.
The following day, British ambassador Leonard Figg personally delivered a message from his government to the Department of the Taoiseach welcoming such an intervention. In the event, Bobby Sands refused through his lawyer, the late Pat Finucane, to see commission representatives unless republican leaders were in attendance. This was not acceptable and the initiative collapsed.
When FitzGerald became taoiseach on June 30th, he also got involved in efforts to avert the deaths of further prisoners.
He backed a sustained attempt to achieve a settlement by the Catholic hierarchy’s Commission for Justice and Peace. But this was stymied by a curious British decision to enter parallel behind-the-scenes negotiations with republican leaders.
The two channels fell foul of one another, but the FitzGerald government continued its efforts. On July 21st, with six prisoners dead, government press secretary Liam Hourican argued internally for a sharp public critique of the British government for its failure to heed advice on a resolution.
But this was three days after ariot outside the British embassy in Ballsbridge. Government secretary and the State’s top civil servant Dermot Nally warned that the coalition’s stance on the strike was becoming indistinguishable from that of the IRA.
Nally was concerned that the prison protest would spread to this jurisdiction: “What do we do if Portlaoise erupts?” He cautioned that a major public row on this issue between Dublin and London could endanger the long-term interests of both.
The preoccupation with the hunger strike distracted the Haughey and FitzGerald governments. Nevertheless, there are strong echoes of current concerns at European level in the minutes of a private meeting in Bonn on March 31st between Haughey, who was still taoiseach at the time, and German chancellor Helmut Schmidt.
A public split had emerged between Schmidt and Thatcher in the previous week at a European summit in Maastricht when the German chancellor accused the British prime minister of betraying a promise to agree a common fisheries policy.
Foreshadowing the current divergence between British and German policies at EU level, Schmidt complained to Haughey about Thatcher’s attitude at the summit and her overall approach to European issues.
The Germans were concerned, even at that stage, about how much the community was costing them. And Schmidt bemoaned the fact that tax increases were being imposed on his people to pay for a budget refund to Britain.
He said his French counterpart, Giscard d’Estaing, took a similar view. He told Haughey that the European community was “not a nice club just now” and “the mood had become quite ugly”.
Back home, abortion made its way on to the political agenda in 1981. Campaigners were concerned that the existing statutory criminal law would not be sufficient to prevent abortions being carried out in Ireland. They demanded that a specific ban be inserted in the Constitution.
Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael agreed to this but, after the general election, the coalition’s attorney general, Peter Sutherland, quickly made his objections known to FitzGerald.
A letter outlining Sutherland’s objections to an anti-abortion amendment is contained in files which have been released to the National Archives.
“It is my opinion that the right to life has been clearly enunciated by the courts and that, in the circumstances, the constitutional amendment is unnecessary,” Sutherland wrote to the taoiseach on August 28th, less than two months after the coalition had taken office.
A constitutional ban was approved by referendum in September 1983 although Sutherland opposed the formulation as flawed and the subsequent Supreme Court ruling in the X case of 1992 appeared to vindicate this.
Thirty years on, our political leaders can at least draw satisfaction from the success of the Northern Ireland peace process, despite some continuing dissident violence. Although important then, European issues are completely dominant now but the Schmidt-Haughey exchanges show that Britain’s semi-detached approach is nothing new. Abortion continues to rumble on as an issue but with nothing like the potency it had in the early 1980s.
What lessons can be learned? The contrast in the Northern Ireland situation then and now shows that problems can be resolved or at least placed on the road to resolution if politicians have sufficient courage and persistence. If the same qualities are applied to our economic difficulties we may yet succeed in overcoming them.
Deaglán de Bréadún is an Irish Times Political Correspondent
P.S. There’s more on the State Papers at www.irishtimes.com